Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Bring on the biodigesters

Why aren't farmers diversifying into on-farm energy production? It's a bit of a mystery if we believe the figures that researchers on Relu's Energy Production on Farms Through Anaerobic Digestion project have come up with. At their end of project conference there was some scepticism among industry insiders. And yet, it does seem as though both farmers and the UK Government might be missing a trick. If they do take the energy production route, they should bear in mind another finding from the team. Unlike farmers in Germany and Austria, they would be better off not relying on maize to feed their digesters. Maize is marginal for much of the UK and doesn't encourage wildlife. Residues from crops they already grow could be a much better option, and could provide a triple win for food production, biodiversity and energy. Perhaps farmers just need a bit more information about the possibilities and some more encouragement from policymakers. Look out for more results from this project

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Do fence them in

Sometimes simple solutions really are the best. While many great minds are exercised about how the UK is going to meet the requirements of the European Water Framework Directive, a group of Relu researchers has been concentrating on the practicalities of reducing faecal contamination in our rivers. According to their computer model, building better fences that prevent livestock from fouling watercourses would be the single most effective strategy. It would work better than more complicated approaches, aimed at reducing stocking densities - which is good news for farmers. And for Relu this represents a great piece of cross-programme research, involving people from several projects. So it's good news all round. Read all about it in the press release and the research is published in Water Research .

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Could new farm animals provide a future for the livestock sector?

The future for livestock farmers could be pretty bleak if we believe everything we read in the press. Is meat really going to give you cancer? Is producing beef wrecking the rainforests and the planet? Are farting cows really a major contributor to climate change? Will millions starve if we don't all become vegetarians? A seminar on Friday, organised by the Food Research Partnership brought together policymakers, academics and representatives from the industry to ruminate on the problems and brainstorm new approaches. They were asked to think about the contribution that the livestock sector makes to the environment and society so climate change wasn't far from anyone's mind. As meat eating becomes more and more a feature of life in the developing world can what we do in the UK even make a difference? But, in this session, prompted by the Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington and chaired by Chris Gaskell, Principal of the Royal Agricultural College, the discussion was surprisingly upbeat. Maggie Gill from the Scottish Government encapsulated the messages from the day when she urged producers to move from their defensive position and communicate the positive messages about meat eating to balance out what the public is hearing. Meat can be beneficial for the human diet, grazing is important for maintaining iconic landscapes and animals can transform grass and other fibre that is inedible by humans into valuable protein with great efficiency. By the end of Friday afternoon the groups were in full voice when they fed back to the chair: couldn't we rethink the ban on feeding food waste to pigs instead of sending it to landfill, breed cows that would give more lactations, maybe without having to give birth, and animals that would create less methane. What other technical fixes might be developed to eliminate the methane problem? And why just cows, sheep and pigs? What about all those other animals we could use for food? By this point the delegates were buzzing. Perhaps even ostriches might take off.

A report from the day will be produced for the Chief Scientific Adviser.