Thursday, November 22, 2007

England's Green and Pleasant Land.

So were written the words of "Jerusalem" by William Blake, the final stanza of which goes:

"I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."

It is sung by strong men at rugby football matches, with tears in their eyes, but it could be taken as an environmental anthem. However, while Britain is still a green land, that could all change as future events take their course. Fields of biofuel crops could take the place of pastures of grazing animals, while enormous acres of same-cultivated crops cover space between identical urban landscapes, villages as we know them, no longer in existence. A report from Natural England entitled "Tracking Change in the Character of the Urban Landscape," has concluded at 40% of the nation's landscapes are deteriorating from their traditional vistas.

There is public antipathy toward farmers, as they are often perceived: taking hefty EU subsidies while creating mountains of potatoes and butter that nourish no one; polluting rivers and streams; cutting-away the hedgerows to make enormous fields to grow more crops for more profit, while killing wild animals and birds. The list could go on. It is truth, however, that a mere 60% of our food is produced within the nation's borders. It is clear too that food prices will soar, but this is no fault of the farmers - inevitably oil prices will make the production of food and its transportation more expensive and so the produce itself, whether grown at home or imported from elsewhere. Food production has in fact fallen by around 1% per year for the past 15 years.

Farmers have been "hit" by BSE, swine-fever, foot-and-mouth disease, to name a few tragedies, while bird-flu constantly threatens further calamity. The suicide rate among farmers is the highest of any occupation, and it is also a truth that few other industries are forced to sell their production at less than cost-price. Public transport in the countryside is generally lamentable and so even the rural "poor" need to be multi-car families, to access basic services such as schools, the doctor, the bank and buying food. Those in this position will suffer greatly as prices, especially of fuel, rise.

To accord with the desired nearly 6% of Europe's fuel demand to be provided in the form of biofuels by 2010, some 3 million tonnes of wheat from a total of 15 million tonnes would be required in the UK, thus removing it from the food market, and eliminating any such surplus for export. The economic success of China means that its population will most likely move from a diet based on rice to one based on grain, and that will put pressure on world markets, possibly to a doubling in grain consumption within 40 years. To produce more food means either planting crops that give greater yields per care or cultivating more land.

The EU has reduced the amount of "set-aside" land from 8% in 2006-2007 to zero in 2007-2008, but since this land is much less productive it will not yield another 8% of crops - it tends to be stony, the headlands, fens and that in forests. There will be major changes make to the countryside, including moving animals to uncropable hill-land, in an effort to cram as much crop production wherever they can be grown. GM (genetically modified" crops are also thought might be necessary as they give higher yields, although the debate over GM has not yet been resolved.

Supporters of nuclear power claim that its preponderance will reduce the amount of land needed to produce biofuels, by which I presume they mean that nuclear can be used to produce hydrogen, and that instead can be a source of transportation energy. I have my doubts about this, on any significant scale, but nuclear power can certainly help us to keep the lights on. All in all I read the signs here as a call to maximise national self-sufficiency certainly in food, while the problem of providing transportation fuel remains, as oil becomes increasingly expensive and in short supply.

Related Reading.
"Goodbye beautiful Britain," Sunday Times Online, August 26th, 2007.


Anonymous said...

More on abiotic oil:

The mind boggles! But there are other scarcities - rare metals, etc. squandered during the Cheap Oil era - that oil can't replace.

So that era may have put limits on the future development of any similar economic models. The "cost of opportunity" (1030 Google hits, some quite fascinating) grinds on.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Sustain,

good point! I think the evidence for abiotic oil is strong, but how much of it can we reasonably access? It also seems to be full of magnetite from what I gather, from which it would need separating.

I am beginning to speculate that there may be different origins of petroleum - some from the near surface decay of plant and animal remains and some from the lower depths probably formed from bacterial action.

I guess there is a limit below which oil will not be found, as it would be too hot, but there may be gas.

By the way, the book you sent me has arrived! Something for me to read over the Christmas holidays, I think!



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