[Mr. David Amess in the Chair] — Biofuels

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:01 pm on 5th June 2008.

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Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Shadow Minister (Transport) 4:01 pm, 5th June 2008

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo and the Select Committee that he chairs for the report that they have produced. It demonstrates very well why Select Committees are so important in identifying issues and producing such good evidence.

The UK produced 652 million tonnes of CO2 in 2006, and although that fell by 0.5 per cent. the next year, that hid an increase of 1.3 per cent. in emissions from transport. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if something has the word "bio" or "eco" in front of it, it is bound to be good. I think that Jo Swinson referred to that. There are probably many people driving round the country in hybrid cars who feel that they are single-handedly saving the planet. The fact is that there is no such thing as a car that does not produce emissions. There are good cars and bad cars.

As a farmer—I declare an interest—who has grown biofuels on my farm and currently grows oilseed rape, I can tell the members of the Committee that I was in no doubt when I produced oilseed rape that I was doing it for economic reasons. I was doing it in response to common agricultural policy subsidies. As we poured the diesel into our tractors and the fertiliser into our fertiliser spreaders, we were in no doubt that we were probably contributing to the problem of global warming, rather than solving it.

In the same way, I am sure that the companies referred to by Ms Taylor are motivated by the best possible reasons, but we need to examine the scientific evidence, and the evidence in this report demonstrates that, in very many cases, biofuels are not helping us to reduce CO2 and they are often contributing to the problem. It is important that we consider the scientific evidence, rather than putting a wonderful green halo around ourselves when we think that we are doing something that is helping the planet.

Farmers lobbied for the introduction of biofuels. That was very appealing because many of us were growing nothing on 10 per cent. of our farms; it was free land. This was something that we could do with land that was available. As a former Member of the European Parliament, I know that member states with big agricultural communities lobbied hard to get biofuels on the agenda, as a way of funnelling cash to their farmers rather than necessarily in every case considering the sustainability of every single aspect of the policy. In many ways, of course, the EU policy tends to be farmer-driven—perhaps not as much as it was, but certainly that has always been an aspect of it.

Europe is not the only region where biofuels are on the agenda. The United States is pushing for biofuels, for very different reasons. For the Americans, it is all to do with non-reliance on the middle east and with energy security. Certainly the ethanol produced from maize in the US is not sustainable at all, but it is produced for other reasons. I suspect that, as long as the US remains addicted to energy, it will continue to produce more and more CO2, despite what we hear about Americans falling out of love with the Ford pick-up.

Since the policy was formulated in the European Commission, two things have changed. The first change relates to the sustainability of the fuels, and the evidence in that regard that the Select Committee very assiduously collected is well worth reading. Also relevant is the world picture. We can be as sustainable as we want in producing a biofuel in the UK, but if rain forest is being chopped down to produce that, we are causing damage. I saw figures that suggest that when rain forest is cut down, between 100 and 200 tonnes of carbon are emitted per hectare in the first year. That means that if 2 per cent. of the world's biofuels were produced in that way, it would wipe out the benefits of everything else, even if it was 100 per cent. efficient.

We need to examine the sustainability criteria—Joan Walley referred to that—but I am not sure whether it is credible that that can be made to stick. For example, if a boatload of rapeseed comes across the Atlantic, how do we know that every grain of rapeseed on that boat was produced sustainably? Even if it was produced sustainably, how do we know that the displacement—the food that was produced on new land—was sustainable? It would be very difficult to have a blue-chip sustainability measurement that we could use and feel certain that we were producing sustainable fuel.

With regard to the point that I made to Mark Hunter, I can remember when Margot Wallström, the EU Environment Commissioner, was dispatched to Seattle, to the World Trade Organisation, charged with ensuring that there was an environmental aspect and an animal welfare aspect to the negotiations. She was sent away with a flea in her ear, having been told firmly by the WTO that it would not look at aspects such as child labour, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. The WTO was not open for business in that way.

The second big change occurred last August in the world food supply. As a wheat producer—not a barley baron, I hasten to add—I can say that we had had 10 or 20 years of very depressed grain prices, but they went up dramatically within the space of 10 weeks. Wheat that had been trading the previous year at £70 a tonne was trading at £170 a tonne. That has provoked a number of effects around the world. Forty-three countries have seen food riots. There have been food riots in Mexico, where the price of grain maize has gone up dramatically. The price of oilseed rape has also gone up. People are looking at paying £340 a tonne next harvest for oilseed rape, as opposed to £150 a tonne only a couple of years ago.

I suppose that one good side effect is that that has priced out the freelance people who dosed their tanks with cooking oil from the supermarket. They have been almost priced out of the market, so I do not think that we will see too many repeats of what happened in Swansea in 2003, when there was a run on cooking oil at Asda. The report in The Guardian suggested that the people at Asda did not raise their eyebrows at what was happening. According to the report, the store manager said:

"We just thought they were doing a lot of frying. You have to remember, healthy eating has not hit Swansea in a big way."

I am pleased to say that the police set up a squad to target that dosing of fuel—it was called the frying squad. I almost did not dare say that, but it was in The Guardian, so it must be true.

There are very serious effects around the world in developing countries. Already in countries such as China, people are switching from meat, which they were becoming used to eating, to eating grain instead, which has meant that they can continue to sustain themselves.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister has taken an interest. On 23 April at Prime Minister's questions, I asked what his views were of the renewable transport fuel obligation. In fact, I asked him whether his priority was to put bioethanol in a Range Rover's fuel tank or to put bread in an African's stomach. For once, I got a very good answer from the Prime Minister, who had the previous day had a food seminar in Downing street. He said that the policy on bioethanol must be reviewed, and he was determined that we should do more to increase the supply of food to the world, particularly because of the way in which China and India are pushing up demand for it. I am pleased that the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest. The Minister remarked to me recently that he had been hoping to get a chat with the Prime Minister on the subject, but I have beaten him to it. I am pleased that our debate is based on science, not on politics and rhetoric.

There have been other effects on subsistence farming in developing countries. We might think that the price of wheat does not matter to those who produce grain in the fields behind the house and consume it themselves, but it has had a dramatic effect on many of the other inputs in agriculture. There is a waiting list for John Deere tractors in this country; the price of fertilisers has more than trebled, with an even greater increase for phosphates; and there will be increasing pressure on water resources, which are under great pressure in the developing world.

I welcome the report. We need to look carefully at second-generation biofuels. We must bear in mind that they are often a long-term project for farmers. They can grow rape this year and something else the next, but willow coppice and miscanthus are permanent crops. Farmers will need some degree of certainty about the future level of subsidy were the Government or the Commission to go ahead.