Biofuels and energy production dominate Europe’s landscape

After a week in England and a month touring central Europe by road, rail and river, I have gained a superficial impression of the predominant types of agricultural activity in the region. I am talking about Austria, Bavaria, Rhineland and some of the old Communist countries – East Germany, Poland, Slovakia and the CzechRepublic.

 

While these observations cannot claim to be comprehensive or even accurate in the matter of detail, they will provide a fairly accurate point of contrast with New Zealand’s agricultural landscape. In particular they indicate a totally different set of political, economic and environmental priorities in Europe.

 

The similarities are few and far between: in Germany there are substantial plantings of pine trees for house building and furniture manufacture, although they are thin, spindly trees which grow more slowly than ours because of the climate; along the Rhine and Danube there are plentiful vineyards, many on the side of very steep, rocky hills; and there are plenty of crops, including maize and wheat.

 

But that’s about where the similarities end. Cattle are a surprise when they appear alongside the hectares of crops, although more plentiful in Bavaria where there is a strong dairy herd; sheep are almost non-existent, but I did see two flocks on a farm park museum, one of which was nearly extinct. Farm size is much smaller than in New Zealand and all livestock is housed inside for half the year because of the extremes of climate.

 

The largest types of land use are traditional crops of wheat and barley, maize or corn for animal feed and ethanol, sugar beet for sugar and fodder, and sunflowers for oil and seeds with waste used for fodder and, in recent years, an increasing amount of rapeseed for biofuels. A growing land use, particularly in Germany, is for solar panel farms which would seem to be an even bigger misuse of agricultural land than any other devoted to biofuel production.

 

Germany has a stronger green lobby than any other EU member, evidenced by the longstanding presence of the Green party in parliament and government. The intention is to close all reactors in Germany by 2022 and this will place enormous pressure on finding replacement sources of energy, as well as laying nearly 4000 kilometres of grid.

 

The impact on the landscape is already significant – heavily government subsidised solar panels cover many roofs as well as the growing number of solar farms, wind turbines stretch across the countryside, while rapeseed and other biofuel destined crops have taken up large swathes of countryside. Besides there aren’t really sufficient sunlight hours or wind for solar and wind generation to operate economically.

 

Nor is it certain that the alternative energy sources will be sufficient to replace nuclear capacity by 2022 or any other target date. Germany is currently a net exporter of energy, although many other EU members are equally opposed to nuclear power, so the longer term energy outlook for Europe is dubious. It will take an awful lot of solar panels (rumoured to be less than 2% of energy generation), wind turbines, hydro dams and hectares of rapeseed to compensate.

 

The other overwhelming impression is that of scale – as everybody knows already, European farm size is dramatically smaller than New Zealand’s. Herd sizes are minute in comparison and, in many cases, only big enough to meet the needs of the family. A visit to the BavarianFarmMuseumPark gave a fascinating insight into farming history, both before and during the introduction of mechanisation.

 

Farm houses from previous centuries which had still been occupied until the 20th century all had the cattle stalls underneath the hay loft reached by a ramp to take the hay up so it could then be fed to the cattle in the winter. Living quarters were designed beside and round the cattle stalls and loft. In some ways, farm production involving livestock has not progressed very much beyond these examples from history.

 

Obviously, given the EU’s agricultural subsidy commitment, there is an enormous amount of agricultural production in Europe. But much of it appears to be uneconomical because of scale, while another large proportion is devoted to biofuel and energy production for environmental and political reasons.

 

If we wish to continue exporting high value products to the EU, New Zealand’s challenge is to grow environmentally acceptable agricultural produce efficiently and present it in a way that meets sophisticated consumer demands. This will become increasingly difficult because New Zealand is no longer a cheap option and our exchange rate is unlikely to weaken against the Euro for some time to come.

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