How maize craze threatens future of West Country land

llamedos

New Member
Liz Bowles , head of farming at the Soil Association, is warning that runaway maize is threatening South West farmers

In the South West we grow approximately 74,000 hectares of maize each year, more than double that of any other region in the UK.



Most is used for livestock feed but as anaerobic digesters become more common, maize is increasingly grown as a feedstock. The growth in maize production is becoming a serious problem for soils, often causing severe damage to the environment.

Maize production has increased from just 8,000 hectares in England in 1973 to around 183,000 hectares in 2014 with huge implications for our environment.


This is becoming a national scandal, especially when an increasing proportion of maize is being grown for anaerobic digestion (AD) which takes land out of the reach of livestock farmers, as the double subsidy received by AD means that farmers growing maize for this purpose can pay much higher land rentals than for any other usage.

Maize can be responsible for significant environmental damage to soils and affects water quality. It leaves soil exposed for much of the growing season, increasing surface run off, leaching nutrients from soils, and during heavy rain sending water cascading from compacted soils to pour pesticides into waterways and cause widespread flooding.

In the South West we feel the brunt of this crop's impact. In 2013 the South West was the most densely cultivated region for maize, while at the same time soils in the South West are more vulnerable to winter damage due to the amount and intensity of rainfall we receive.

The flooding of the levels is a case in point, and the disastrous effect this quantity of rainfall had on farmers forced many into dire straits. Researchers estimate that during the storms in the winter of 2013/14, every ten-hectare block of damaged land under maize stubble produced the equivalent of 15 Olympic swimming pools (375 million litres) of additional runoff.

It is time for our Government to take notice of the damaging nature of maize when not grown following best practice, and to adopt legislation to outlaw such practices so that maize is only grown following best practice. This means under-sowing maize crops, sowing early maturing varieties, not growing maize on the same field year in year out and not growing maize on unsuitable fields.

Our soils are in crisis and if we do not act soon we may cause permanent harm to our land. The boom in maize cultivation is fuelled by the popularity of its use as a so-called biofuel in anaerobic digesters. As this 'green' energy increases, the threat to our soil will grow.

Biogas produced from maize not only provides no net benefit to the environment, it actually increases environmental degradation and reduces the amount of land available to produce food. Recent research also concluded that 'using agricultural crops for biogas production is not environmentally sustainable, and policy should not encourage this practice'. We are already seeing the vast damage nationwide this crop is causing and without sufficient guidance in place, farmers will have no options in safeguarding their land from environmental damage. Many farmers are literally being paid to cause significant harm to the vital resources we rely on for survival.

Increased maize production drives up farmland rents, as investors rush to lease land for maize cultivation, and benefit from double subsidies. Maize growers are subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and AD plants using maize receive the Feed-in Tariff and the Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies. In 2015 the total amount that will be paid to farmers growing maize amounts to almost £33 million.

This puts further pressure on our struggling livestock farmers who need to rent pasture for their livestock. In addition, 'renewable' energy subsidies for maize used in AD plants are costing British energy consumers up to £50 million per year.

The Soil Association is calling for the removal of all subsidies available for AD digesters fuelled in whole or partly by maize. We hope that this will reverse the explosion in maize and prevent the UK following Germany's lead into a country where agriculture is set to growing energy, not food. The UK already imports 40 per cent of all food consumed and this is expected to increase. Giving up land which could be producing food threatens our food security and makes us vulnerable to volatile global markets.

It is very possible to grow maize to better standards that reduce the risks to soils and the environment, but we do not currently have a policy in place to encourage this. Some farmers are already using maize to their advantage, but not enough of them.

But we can reverse this trend. Changes to practices in growing maize more sustainably and reducing the impacts to soil and water include planting a winter cover crop or green cover after harvesting so soil is not left bare throughout the winter, and improves the structure and drainage of soil. Use of early maturing varieties means an earlier harvest, which allows time for the planting of winter cover and minimises compaction.

Increasingly farmers in the South West are being helped to develop better practice for maize growing as this will help them keep their soils healthy. However there is still a lot of late harvested maize grown here. Some 75 per cent of late harvested sites (in the South West) showed high or severe levels of soil degradation, leading to enhanced water runoff.

Clearer policy measures for maize growing are needed together with removal of double subsidies for AD feedstock crops, but until these are produced by the Government it is up to farmers to make decisions based on the productivity of their own land in order to maintain soil quality.





Credit : WDP
 

Adeptandy

Member
Location
PE15
I was more concerned with the pesticides angle, they always have to stick it in somewhere and thought maize was a low pesticide input crop, and claiming it was part cause of the floods is stretching it a bit, agree with the rents paid for the land though, same around here.
 

rob1

Member
Location
wiltshire
It is an ever increasing concern along with badgers and the two problems are intrinsically linked. Growing food crops for electricity production is morally unsettling and a sad reflection of a distorted industry.
Low prices due to world surplus makes most farming a low profit job so whats wrong with growing something that makes money, is that not what farmers are told to do ? Soil damage from growing it on poorly drained fields and high subs distorting the economics are problems for sure, one is down to farmers the other isnt and in todays financial times farmers will grows what pays. I dont as dont want to have to plough ground
 

Fromebridge

Member
Location
Glos
I believe Germany has already learned this lesson. Too much maize in the rotation (for AD, as I think they aren't allowed to put animal waste in) and now have a big build up of crop disease
 

SRRC

Member
Location
West Somerset
I visited some German farms with AD some years ago, while initially the margins looked pretty good they had already blown profitability by competing for the available maize growing land.
The moral seems to be, as always, secure your basic inputs at the right price.
 

Boysground

Member
Location
Wiltshire
I have 2 ad plants within 4 miles of here. Neither uses a kg of maize or any other farm grown crop. They both use exclusively super market/ food processing waste, apparently one of them can have 20 trucks a day turning up. I can never make up my mind if it a good thing that all this waste is being used efficiently rather than dumped in landfill or that it is such a waste of all this food that is being dumped. I know it is not uncommon for in date items to be put in the digester because they do not have enough time left to be on the shelves.

I do agree that soil runoff can be a particular issue. Perhaps the government/ DEFRA missed the boat on this, they could have put later sowing dates for cover crops enabling some farmers to establish a cover after maize (I know this isn't possible on all soils) which would help reduce runoff. I would have liked that option here.

I always get slightly annoyed with the soil association as they do fail to mention that maize with its different photosynthesis uses more carbon than other plants so it could be classed as being very beneficial to the environment.

Bg
 

sjt01

Member
Location
North Norfolk
What were thoughts on the Farming Today programme this morning on the subject? I thought George Gittus spoke well, and Monbiot was his usual self

Stephen
 

Pasty

Member
Location
Devon
All these subsidies for energy are screwing everything. We've now got people building sheds for broilers, not because of the chicken meat, but because what comes out of their backsides is worth more if you have an AD plant. It's insane. The meat is a by product. That in turn, totally changes the poultry meat market for unsubsidised producers.
 

spin cycle

Member
Location
north norfolk
more likely the lights will go out this winter than food running out....i've just lost my maize ad contract as they pull production back to home estate.....what 'food' should i grow in it's place thats needed?....i'm only a small farmer it's a real blow to me.....i wish there were more ad plants in my 'neck of the woods'
 

Goweresque

Member
Location
North Wilts
Subsidies for energy include massive tax breaks for North Sea Oil - if the big oil companies can get a hand up, why should we be excluded?
Tell you what, I'll give your inefficient neighbour a direct subsidy of £50k in cash per year, and I'll give you a 'subsidy' of only taxing your profits at 10%, instead of the normal rates. You'll be entirely happy with this, as they are exactly comparable, according to you.
 
I have 2 ad plants within 4 miles of here. Neither uses a kg of maize or any other farm grown crop. They both use exclusively super market/ food processing waste, apparently one of them can have 20 trucks a day turning up. I can never make up my mind if it a good thing that all this waste is being used efficiently rather than dumped in landfill or that it is such a waste of all this food that is being dumped. I know it is not uncommon for in date items to be put in the digester because they do not have enough time left to be on the shelves.

I do agree that soil runoff can be a particular issue. Perhaps the government/ DEFRA missed the boat on this, they could have put later sowing dates for cover crops enabling some farmers to establish a cover after maize (I know this isn't possible on all soils) which would help reduce runoff. I would have liked that option here.

I always get slightly annoyed with the soil association as they do fail to mention that maize with its different photosynthesis uses more carbon than other plants so it could be classed as being very beneficial to the environment.

Bg
the carbon angle of growing maize would only be relevent if the plants were left to grow year after year wouldn't it?
 

Boysground

Member
Location
Wiltshire
the carbon angle of growing maize would only be relevent if the plants were left to grow year after year wouldn't it?
TBH I don't know. Would you have to compare how much carbon is used by a range of plants to grow the same weight of biomass in a year. Say a comparison between maize wheat and grass or perhaps an oak tree as an extreme.

Bg
 

Pasty

Member
Location
Devon
the carbon angle of growing maize would only be relevent if the plants were left to grow year after year wouldn't it?
I was thinking that. Carbon can be locked up in the soil by having a deep root structure with , say, well managed pasture. It can be locked up in trees and you can argue that a certain area of woodland, if managed well can lock up a certain amount of carbon for eternity. But an annual crop? I suppose it has some effect but not for long. Plus all the fossil fuels used to grow and harvest it, year after year will surely negate any benefit? Unless I've got the wrong end of the stick.
 

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