Bioenergy in relation to agriculture and forestry

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The use and production of biomass for energy are intimately connected with wider policies and practices for agriculture and forestry. An overriding consideration is that such use and production should be ecologically sustainable, i.e. that the resource be used in a renewable manner, with (re-)growth keeping pace with use. Moreover, for ethical reasons, it is vital that biomass production for energy is not at the expense of growing enough food to feed people.

Nevertheless, in the European Union and the USA, a major issue in agriculture is over-production of food, as encouraged by agricultural subsidies. Such subsidies increase general taxation and the consequent surpluses of agricultural products distort world trade to the disadvantage of developing countries. As a partial response to such concerns, the European Union introduced financial incentives for its farmers to set aside land from food production, and either to maintain it unproductively or for biomass for energy. Such policies retain the social benefits of an economically active rural population while also bringing the environmental benefits, described below, of substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.

Utilising waste biomass increases the productivity of agriculture and forestry. This is especially so for the acceptable disposal of otherwise undesirable outputs, e.g. biodigestion of manure from intensive piggeries, so the integrated system brings both economic and environmental benefits. As emphasised in Section 11.1, successful biofuel production utilises already concentrated flows of biomass, such as offcuts and sawdust from sawmilling, straw from crops, manure from penned animals and sewage from municipal works. Biofuel processes that depend first upon transporting and then upon concentrating diffuse biomass resources are unlikely to be viable.

Energy developments utilising local crops and established skills are most likely to be socially acceptable. Thus the form of biomass most likely to be viable as an energy source will vary from region to region. Moreover, as with any crop, sustainable agriculture and forestry is required, for instance extensive monocultures are vulnerable to disease and pests and unfriendly to native fauna. Note, too, that greenhouse gas benefits only occur when the biomass is used to replace fossil fuel use, so leaving the abated fossil fuel underground.

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