Liz Truss’s plans to stop farmers putting solar panels in their fields risks placing them under greater financial pressure, and fails to recognise the extent to which crops are now used for polluting biofuels, new research suggests.
Ms Truss reiterated her desire to crack down on solar power this week, saying she would stop farmers from “filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms”.
At the moment, 10 per cent of every litre of petrol put into vehicles in the UK is made up of biofuels – largely from plants such as oilseed rape, wheat and sugar.
While this portion of the fuel is routinely described as “sustainable”, studies have revealed that the difference is minimal, and in some cases “worse than fossil fuels”, with additional concerns that giving over large tracts of land to growing crops to burn in engines can result in the degradation of land and increases in food prices, as competition for land rises.
Biofuel production for use in the UK occupies around 108,000 hectares of land – the equivalent of 200,000 football pitches – enough space to grow food for around 3.5 million people per year, Green Alliance said.
By contrast, solar farms built since 2010 only account for around 1,400 hectares of arable land in the UK.
However, farmland used for solar panels can also be used to grow crops, with previous research suggesting that combining food production and solar panels results in just a 7 per cent reduction in yield on average.
Ms Truss’s comments come a week after she made a similar pledge at another rally, when she told the audience: “Our fields … shouldn’t be full of solar panels, and I will change the rules. I will change the rules to make sure we’re using our high-value agricultural land for farming.”
Rishi Sunak has also indicated similar opposition to solar panels being built on farmland.
Meanwhile, plant biomass production uses nearly three-quarters as much land as the entire UK potato industry and is a “strong factor” in rising food prices, analysis has found.
Boris Johnson recently clashed with Joe Biden after the PM said he wanted to slash production of biofuels in a bid to free up land for food production, saying the process is pushing up the cost of food.
He said: “Liz Truss is promising yet more pain for farmers, not only did she personally agree trade deals that undermine our high standards, but now she’s saying that they can’t diversify their businesses by supporting green energy.
“We need our farmers to protect our countryside, repair our natural environment and help us cut emissions, all while growing our food. Liberal Democrats back British farmers to do that, meanwhile, the Tories threaten to drive them out of business.”
Ms Truss’s contempt for renewable energy also appears to be out of step with what Conservative voters would like to see, polls have shown. Not least due to rising concerns about the energy crisis, the environment, and the need to end dependency on gas.
Friends of the Earth’s head of policy Mike Childs called that Ms Truss’s stance “bizarre”.
Speaking to The Independent, he said: “With millions more people about to be plunged into fuel poverty it’s bizarre to suggest that we should stop building solar farms, which will provide the nation with cheap electricity, as well as cutting climate-changing emissions.
“Solar farms can happily co-exist with sheep farming, and be a haven for wildflowers, bees and butterflies.
“This clean energy source also appears to be very popular with Conservative party members, with a recent poll revealing that more than two-thirds back solar parks and panels.”
Green peer Natalie Bennett said that Ms Truss “is again betraying her ignorance and her prejudices – and catering to those of the tiny, unrepresentative group of people choosing our next prime minister”.
“As the Green Alliance is highlighting, biofuels are a bigger land use issue than solar panels,” she told The Independent.
Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, outlined the “vital role” solar power can play, with its low cost and rapid roll-out making it a key means of bringing down soaring bills.
He told The Independent: “Solar energy is hugely popular in the UK. Almost nine in 10 people support it and the majority of the population would be happy to have solar farms built in their local area.
“Millions of households are facing one of the bleakest winters in memory due to astronomical energy bills and rising food costs. Many will be forced to choose whether to heat or eat. Yet we prioritise using arable land for growing crops for biofuels to power cars, which threatens our food security and drives up prices.
“It’s true we need to use land more efficiently to tackle the global food crisis, and rooftops should be prioritised where possible, but restricting the development of cheap solar energy production, which can be brought onstream quickly during a global energy crisis is the wrong place to start.”