There’s more to land use than “food versus fuel”

The mention of energy crops is often confronted with the question “Shouldn’t we be growing food rather than planting crops to burn?” Unfortunately, this polar position suggests that there are only two choices for our land resources. In actual fact there are many competing land uses for the UK’s 18.4 million hectares and many of these don’t involve food production.

For instance, in the UK we are a nation of horse lovers with estimates of the population ranging from 796,000 to 944,000. The suggested pasture space required for a horse is 0.7 hectares. If all animals are given the same space then this means that horses currently take up 0.56-0.66 million hectares (around 3.25% of the total area). On top of this there is the space taken up to produce 215,000 tonnes of horse feed and the land required for 60 race courses. The equestrian sector is a major rural industry with economic value of £4.3 billion but nobody ever seems to take up the position “food versus horse”.

In the table below UK agricultural land is divided into its component uses:

Agricultural land use

Area (million hectares)

% of agricultural land use

Rainfed herbaceous crops



Permanent crops






Semi-natural grassland



Broadleaved, mixed and yew woodland



Coniferous woodland



Shrubland, bushland, heathland



Barren land/Sparsely vegetated areas






Source: UK Natural Capital Land Cover in the UK (2015)

In 2015 just 93 thousand hectares of agricultural land was used for bioenergy in the UK – less than 0.5% of the total.

The reality is that society requires farmland to deliver a great many services.  These include:

An influential report called “The best use of UK agricultural land” produced by the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) in 2014 recognises the tough choices we need to make get the maximum benefit from our limited land resource.

The report says:

Where land can deliver multiple benefits – such as forestry or perennial crops providing both a source of timber and energy as well as water management, carbon storage and wildlife benefits – all of these should be understood, valued and their multiple delivery actively encouraged and rewarded”.

We could never produce all our heat, electricity and transport fuels from energy crops but a significant contribution is possible. Recent research by the Energy Technologies Institute suggests that planting energy crops such as short rotation coppice and miscanthus on 1.0-1.8 million hectares could produce 6% of UK energy and reduce the cost of meeting the UK’s 2050 carbon reduction targets by more than 1% of GDP (more than the agriculture sector’s entire current output of 0.7% of GDP in 2014). This indicates the major economic impact that home-grown bioenergy could provide.