How a ban on solar power projects on British farmland could affect sustainable food production

24 October 2022, 07:51 AM
  • The new environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, is opposed to solar panels being placed on agricultural land in an effort to boost domestic food production
How a ban on solar power projects on British farmland could affect sustainable food production

According to government sources, Ranil Jayawardena has asked his officials to redefine ‘best and most versatile’ land (BMV), which is earmarked for farming, to include the middling-to-low category 3b. Currently, most solar farms are built on and planned for 3b land, so this move would scupper most new developments of the renewable energy source.

In fact, extending BMV to grade 3b would ban solar from about 41% of the land area of England, or about 58% of agricultural land. This leaves higher-grade land that is unsuitable for solar farming. 

While the new environment secretary’s ambition of boosting food production is a positive one, this could impact the way sustainable farmers grow food and detriment independent retailers championing their produce.

Striking a balance
With the food industry struggling to achieve food security and sustainable farming practices, charities and industry bodies suggest that it is a matter of striking the right balance. 

Commenting on the environment secretary’s plans, Dustin Benton, policy director at the thinktank Green Alliance, said, “It would be odd to redefine ‘best and most versatile’ agricultural land to include soils that aren’t of high quality, just to block solar farms. 

“The UK desperately needs to expand renewables so we don’t have to pay the extortionate cost of gas. Solar is one of the fastest energy sources to be deployed, so we should move quickly to build more in light of the gas crisis.”

For James Woodward, sustainable farming officer at Sustain, it is a case of combining the two in order to achieve a greener future. “There are ways that solar panels can be integrated with food production using agrivoltaic systems. This has not been used much in the UK, but the government and farming sector should trial ways to make this work here. 

“However, it is important to ensure that we do not inadvertently impact on sustainable food production and opportunities to recover nature.”

Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the National Farmers Union, agreed, “Renewable energy production is a core part of the NFU’s net zero plan and solar projects often offer a good diversification option for farmers.

“However, there is a need to strike a balance between food security and climate ambitions. It is important that large-scale solar farm development is located on lower-quality agricultural land, avoiding the most productive and versatile soils.”

A different approach
For Martin Bowman, senior campaigner at Feedback Global, the government isn’t focusing on changes that will actually contribute to a greener future and enable sustainable food production.

“Even if solar panels are expanded in line with the government’s net zero plans, they will cover the equivalent of only 0.5% of the land currently used for farming, and are beneficial to farmer incomes and biodiversity. 

“If the government cares about freeing up farmland to feed the UK, it should follow its own official advisers’ recommendations to reduce UK meat consumption, introduce mandatory food waste reporting from farm to fork to reduce UK food waste and stop subsidising bioenergy crops competing for prime agricultural land. 

“Halving UK food waste would save approximately 0.8 million hectares of cropland domestically and overseas, which Feedback estimates could produce enough potatoes and peas to feed 28% of the UK population with all the calories they need all year round - yet the government has dragged its feet on introducing mandatory food waste reporting. 

“85% of the UK’s total agricultural land footprint is associated with meat and dairy production - including 55% of the UK’s domestic cropland – despite only 48% of total protein and 32% of the UK’s total calorie consumption derives from livestock products.”

James agreed, “If the Government wants to improve food security, it needs to think about nutritional food security and maintaining the diversity of farming businesses, while supporting farmers to transition to regenerative and agroecological farming that focuses on soil and biodiversity health, instead of heavily relying on costly inputs.”

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