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Farming responses to peak oil in policy and practice

Farming responses to peak oil in policy and practice

To what extent and with what effects is peak oil a driver of farming and energy policies in the UK, and what responses have emerged in farming practice and why?

Gavin McGregor
MSc in Food Policy
City University, London
Centre for Food Policy, School of Community and Health Sciences, Department of Public Health, Primary Care and Food Policy
August 2011
I wish to thank the four interview participants who gave their time to make my study
possible, and also the pilot interviewee who kindly agreed to act as my guinea pig. They
were all extremely generous with their time and thoughtful in their responses.
I was also aided, in my search for participants, by numerous people working in and around
farming and bioenergy, who went out of their way to assist me with no benefit to
I was advised and encouraged by my tutor, Tim Lang as well as David Buffin and Helen
Crawley, to whom I owe thanks. It has been a pleasure to learn under the guidance of the
entire faculty at the Centre for Food Policy during what was an inspiring year.
UK farming’s heavy dependence on oil-derived inputs demands responses from energy and farming
policy and farming practice in the context of peak oil: the point at which year-on-year growth in
conventional oil production gives way to irreversible decline. Peak oil creates imperatives for farming
to reduce its oil and natural gas consumption and its dependence on markets and supply chains that
are similarly vulnerable, or to seek income sources additional or alternative to food production.
Qualitative analysis of recent UK and EU policy documents was carried out to determine the extent
to which peak oil has entered policy discourse, how the phenomenon and its implications are
defined, and to what extent it has shaped the discourse alongside and sometimes in tension with
other policy drivers, particularly those also relating to resource scarcity. Data was also collected,
through semi-structured interviews with four farming practitioners aware of peak oil issues, with two
principal objectives: to discover peak oil’s place among the drivers of their farming decisions and
what farming practices they employed in response; and to determine their views on how policy helps
or hinders their models of farming and the ability of UK farming to respond to peak oil. Two related
conceptual frameworks informed the analysis: the literature described a loose dichotomy of
paradigms – here labelled ‘ecology’ and ‘capital’ – competing to frame farming policy strategies in
the field of energy, environment and resource scarcities, and a hierarchy of policy drivers was
identified, in which paradigmatic or ideological beliefs frame strategies and objectives, in turn
influencing choice of policy instruments, which themselves might influence on-farm decisions. The
study found peak oil increasingly present in the policy discourse, albeit usually lacking fully analysis
and evident instead by atomised descriptions of its symptoms, permitting gaps in policy analysis and
consequent gaps or delays in appropriate policy responses. The reconciliation of tensions, and
creation of synergies, between peak oil and other policy drivers was a constant theme where energy
and farming policy intersected, and an intensifying reliance on rural resources for a range of
environmental, societal and economic goods determines that this challenge is remaining and
intensifying. Interviewees were to different degrees driven in their decision-making by peak oil,
environmental, social and financial concerns and constraints and, like policymakers, aspiring to
reconcile these, but there was a strong tendency to feel that policy offered inadequate support, or
active hindrances, to their models of farming, the majority of which followed agroecological
approaches. It is proposed that although policy was increasingly favouring a range of agroecological
techniques in response to resource and environmental stresses, including oil, its approach continued
to be informed and framed by a liberal, market, ‘capital’ paradigm prioritising growth and so
ensuring continued tensions between policy drivers.
List of contents
Acknowledgements 2
Abstract 3
List of tables and diagrams 5
Definitions and abbreviations 6
Introduction: Aims and rationale 8
Review of the literature 11
? Methodologies 11
? Concepts 13
? Findings 17
Methodology 25
? Declarations and assumptions 25
? Scope 25
? Literature review 26
? Primary policy data 27
? Primary practitioner data 28
Research question 1: To what extent and how have peak oil and its implications for farming been
defined in EU and UK government energy and agriculture policy discourse?
? UK energy policy 31
? UK food and agriculture policy 33
? EU energy policy 36
? EU food and agricultural policy 38
Research question 2: What are the stated drivers for policy discourse addressing peak oil
imperatives in farming and energy, and how are their synergies and tensions characterised?
? UK coalition policy 40
? EU policy: energy 45
? EU policy: agriculture 48
Research question 3: What approaches in practice are being pursued by UK farming practitioners
aware of peak oil issues, and what are their drivers?
? Drivers: priorities and contexts 52
? Strategies and practices 54
Research question 4: How do participants see the role of policy in supporting their farming model
and UK farming’s future needs in the context of peak oil?
Conclusions 61
? Discussion 61
? Reflections on the research and future directions for research 62
Appendix: Interview schedule 65
References 67
Bibliography of sources consulted but not referenced 76
List of tables and diagrams
Table 1: Products and processes using oil-derived products
in the farming / food system
Table 2: Features of paradigmatic dichotomy in the
Table 3: Summary of findings on policy from the literature 21
Table 4: Summary of findings on practice from the literature 24
Table 5: Key words and phrases used in literature search 26
Table 6: Documentary data collection record sheet
Table 7: Financial incentive frameworks for bioenergy 44
Table 8: Farm and participant characteristics 51
Figure 1: A ‘waterfall’ hierarchy of framers and drivers 29
Definitions and abbreviations
Agroecology Describes a range of farming styles which maximises use of renewable,
locally available resources in preference over synthetic, inorganic inputs,
and seeks to conserve and enhance those resources; minimises pollution;
tends to feature natural nitrogen fixation, biodiversity and produce
diversity; centres on understanding ecosystem functions and working in
harmony with them. (Smaje, Rowlatt 2011 pp5-6)
digestion / AD
Conversion of plant and animal biomass, using bacteria, into methane
which can be used as a renewable source of energy for heat or electricity.
Removal of impurities from the gas creates biomethane, which can be
used as transport fuel. The residual by-product, or digestate, can be used
as nutrient-rich fertiliser. (HM Government 2011a) ; (Defra 2009a p6)
Biofuels Fuels produced from biological resources which can be used for
? First-generation: Primarily bioethanol, produced from
agricultural crops including wheat and sugar beet, and biodiesel,
from crops such as soy or oilseed rape, or from used oils
? Second-generation: Produced from biomass including wood and
waste products
? Third-generation: Produced from alternative biological sources
such as algae – very much in development stages
(HM Government 2009d)
Biogas A product of anaerobic digestion – see above
Biomass Biological products for heat and power generation, eg coppiced wood,
sawmill residues, crops and crop residues, manure, food waste (HM
Government 2009d)
CAP Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union
Closed-loop A system which minimises and utilises waste as far as possible by
recycling waste outputs as resources, for example as nutrients. See
agroecology and conservation agriculture
Business model through which customers receive produce regularly,
and/or other benefits and on-farm access, in return for regular
subscription or membership
Agricultural methods which minimise soil disturbance in order to
maintain soil health and reduce pests, for example through retaining
plant residue on fields and rotating crops. (FAO 2011b) Closely related to
A set of basic statutory environmental requirements farms must meet as
a condition of CAP payments. (European Commission 2010i p39) ; (Smaje,
Rowlatt 2011)
DBERR UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform,
disbanded June 2009
Defra UK Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs
DfID UK Department for International Development
DG-Agri European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture & Rural
DTI UK Department of Trade and Industry
An agri-environment scheme additional to the Single Farm Payment,
providing funding to farmers to deliver environmental management,
incorporating entry level, organic entry level, uplands entry level and
higher level stewardship. Mandated by the EU and administered in
England by Natural England.
EU European Union
FiT Feed-in Tariff: Subsidised premium rate paid per unit of electricity
generated from renewable sources and sold back to the grid
GHG Greenhouse gas(es)
GO-Science Government Office for Science, within UK Department for Business,
Innovation and Skills
HMT Her Majesty’s Treasury
IEA International Energy Agency: represents the main oil-importing countries
LEC Levy Exemption Certificate
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
Red diesel Diesel fuel for on-farm use which is subsidised through fuel duty
RHI Renewable Heat Incentive: Subsidised premium rate paid for renewably
generated heat
RO Renewables Obligation: a requirement for UK electricity suppliers to
source a proportion of energy from renewables
RTFO Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation: a requirement for a minimum
proportion of biofuels in the transport fuel mix
TPB Theory of Planned Behaviour
Introduction: Aims and rationale
Research problem
To what extent and with what effects is peak oil a driver of farming and energy policies in
the UK, and what responses have emerged in farming practice and why?
Research questions
1. To what extent and how have peak oil and its implications for farming been defined in EU
and UK government energy and agriculture policy discourse?
2. What are the stated drivers for policy discourse addressing peak oil imperatives in farming
and energy, and how are their synergies and tensions characterised?
3. What approaches in practice are being pursued by UK farming practitioners aware of peak
oil issues, and what are their drivers?
4. How do participants see the role of policy in supporting their farming model and UK
farming’s future needs in the context of peak oil?
Peak oil is the point at which year-on-year growth in global conventional oil production gives
way to irreversible decline for reasons of geologically-ordained depletion, a point theorised
(some say observed (Jamail 2011)) to cause oil price volatility within a rising price trend,
causing affordability and supply risks in oil-dependent commodities, including natural gas,
production of which is connected with oil production. The point at which demand cannot be
met for technological, geological, economic or geopolitical reasons is often termed a supply
‘crunch’, seen by some as an effect of imminent or existent peak oil.
There are compelling reasons for studying peak oil in the field of food policy, and its place in
farming policy and practice. Agriculture’s heavy dependence upon oil-dependent inputs and
technologies raises questions about the economic and logistical viability of farming should oil
costs rise and supply face uncertainty. This in turn raises concerns about security of food
supply and, given the relationship between oil and food prices (Bailey 2011), affordability.
These dependencies render relevant questions about what interpretations of the issue inform
policy, how tensions or synergies with other drivers of policy manifest, what farming models
are favoured by policy, how farmers conscious of the issue are responding and how they
regard the efficacy of policy.
UK farming features high dependence (Defra 2009b p1) on energy for inputs including fuel
and fertilisers, and maintenance of equipment, as do post-farm gate actors. Table 1 gives an
indication of food system dependencies.
Table 1: Products and processes using oil-derived products in the farming / food system
Inputs and on-farm Post-farm gate
Petrol and diesel for machinery Delivery to processors
Pesticides, herbicides, fertilisers, incl.
manufacture, transport, packaging
Processors’ inputs, eg additives, preservatives and
delivery of these
Planting Processors’ use of boxes, cans, labels, plastic trays,
cellophane, jars, sealing compounds
Irrigation Delivery to distribution centres and retailers,
including refrigerated trucks
Feed Electricity and other power for retail outlets light,
heat, A/C, refrigeration, etc
Harvesting Transport of consumers to and from retail units
Spraying Delivery to wholesalers / caterers
Drying Food preparation by consumers / caterers
Transport of feed and seed Construction and repair of equipment and
infrastructure, eg processing, storage, vehicles,
Construction and repair of equipment and
infrastructure, eg farm machinery
Energy for farm buildings
Sources: Church 2005; Zentner et al. 2011
Around 30-75% of energy expended in agriculture is oil-derived (Woods et al. 2010; Lang et
al 2011 p12), half accounted for by nitrogen fixation in fertilisers (GO-Science 2011 p133).
Oil price impacts on fertiliser price (FAO 2011a p108; Global Food Markets Group 2010), as
during the 2005-08 oil spike (Defra 2011a p12; GO-Science 2011 p15); nevertheless,
inorganic fertiliser use has soared, suggesting increasing dependency (GO-Science 2011 p79;
European Commission 2010i p15). The post-farm gate chain which provides farming its
markets is heavily oil-dependent, particularly retail and consumer activity (Ambler-Edwards
et al. 2009 p26). As Knox et al (2010) observed, the predicament is both economic (input
costs) and technological (the viability of input-fuelled machinery on which farming
predominantly depends).
A steep, irreversible decline in UK domestic fossil fuel production (DECC 2009b p18;
Sharman 2011; UKPIA 2011 p6) risks intensifying this vulnerability by increasing import
dependency for oil products used in farming. It is estimated that 69% of pesticides, 63% of
energy in UK agriculture and 37% of fertiliser are imported (Barling et al 2010 p67). A third
of UK fertiliser is sourced outside the EU, as is 80% of soya-based, oil-dependent livestock
feed (Ambler-Edwards et al. 2009 p30), raising questions for UK farming about peak oil as a
threat to long-distant freight (Freibauer et al. 2011 p45). EU transport remains 98% dependent
on fossil fuels (Franco et al. 2010) and energy use to transport food is higher than that used in
agriculture (Defra 2009, 2010 p95), threatening input supply and access to markets. This
dependency also raises the salience to food supply security of Britain’s decline in food selfsufficiency
and increased reliance on trade (Barling et al 2010 pp66-7).
That peak oil is imminent or recently past has been accepted by the International Energy
Agency (Williams 2011) which represents consumer nations. But peak oil, the subject of
independent and industry analysis for some time, only recently entered mainstream policy
discourse (Dodson et al. 2010 p99). This emergent stage is worthy of study, as peak oil’s
timescale and implications, and notions of how best to respond, are contested, and its place
among other policy drivers uncertain. As Woods et al. (2010) have written, as long as
agriculture remains dependent on fossil fuels it will be a significant GHG emitter and of great
salience to climate policy. Other questions around natural resources (land, biodiversity, water)
and economics (competitiveness, rural economies, supply chain interests) also intersect with
peak oil issues in farming. How these play out in synergy or in tension with each other, or are
perceived to do so, will shape policy choices and thereby impact on farming practice.
This dissertation therefore sought to establish whether and how peak oil was framed and
addressed in energy and farming policy discourse, how this appeared to impact on policy, and
this in turn on farming practice. It also sought perspectives from farming practitioners on their
own responses to peak oil in practice and their views on the efficacy of policy in facilitating
effective farming responses.
Review of the literature
A small number of studies combined policy text analysis and practitioner interviews.
Examining energy and land use, Strachan et al (2006) used policy analysis and semistructured
interviews with businesspeople and campaigners regarding opportunities and
barriers in wind energy. Wright (2005) was a PhD thesis examining Cuban responses to oil
scarcity in the 1990s, combining interviews and surveys with farmers and officials with policy
analysis, lending weight to my bi-directional approach to data collection. Although Wright
researched retrospectively while this dissertation analyses emerging discourse and practice,
Wright’s theoretical framework (p45) was useful: perceptions, beliefs, theory and knowledge,
and external factors, drove approaches in agriculture and policy, a reasoning which informed
my research problem. Barling et al (2010) analysed policy alongside farming perspectives in
statements by producer groups. Reviewing UK policy on food supply security – a sometime
proxy for or overlap with energy security – the authors chose a 2006-08 timeframe in the
context of broader post-war developments. Strategic policy from four departments was
analysed to identify drivers and their relative weight, including issues and beliefs.
Dwyer (2011) combined literature review, analysis of drivers and semi-structured discussions
with policy experts to identify narratives on future challenges in land use; similarly, my semistructured
interviews aim to illuminate peak oil narratives shaping farming. Bomb et al.
(2007) combined analysis of policy and media with interviews with UK and German biofuel
industry players to establish the salience of socio-political contexts. Effects of specific policy
instruments were also assessed.
Lang et al (2011), a review of food policy during the 2000s, reviewed strategy documents,
identifying ideological drivers and tabulating events and policy across EU, UK and devolved
levels, recognising, as this dissertation did, their mutual impacts. Condliffe (2009)’s history of
uplands land use policy also straddled these polities.
Bleischwitz et al. (2009), a study for the European Parliament, highlighted barriers and
drivers for ‘eco-innovation’ policies pertaining to resource scarcities including oil. More
transparent on method than most policy reviews, it offered an instructive example of
consistent, comparative data recording.
Other studies employed policy analysis around energy and farming, such as White (2007) on
climate-related policy affecting food production and Pollock (2011) on contradictions
between fuel-related subsidies and biofuel incentives.
Any search linking farming and energy unearths substantial literature on biofuels, many
discussing policy drivers. Harvey & Pilgrim (2010) and Franco et al. (2010) focused on three
regions, including Europe. Harvey & Pilgrim (2010) critiqued instruments from the
perspective of a “trilemma” (pp1-2) in which food and energy needs produced competing
demands on land, in turn heightening environmental risks; oil depletion was acknowledged as
significant. Franco et al. (2010) examined corporate influence in European policy-making –
an exercise beyond this dissertation’s scope but an important context for policy choices. They
classified assumptions which they argued lay behind the stated benefits of biofuels, allowing
comparisons between drivers, practice and effects. Charles et al. (2007) identified drivers of
biofuel policy as stated by the DfT and one EC directive, but analysis of primary texts
appeared limited to these, suggesting a need for inclusion of broader policy literature, as this
dissertation attempted. Karp & Richter (2011) applied technical expertise to assess effects of
several countries’ biofuels policies on farming practice and recommending changes to
strengthen policy’s influence on practice. This dissertation instead allowed practitioners to
draw on their own experience and expertise to critique policy.
Mattison & Norris (2007) and Sherrington et al (2008) focused on farmer decision-making
around bioenergy production. The former employed Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB), via
questionnaires, to examine belief formation. This dissertation looked at how practitioners
understand peak oil rather than delving into belief formation, but perceived control is one
aspect the interviews sought to touch on. Sherrington et al (2008) used focus groups of
farmers growing or considering perennial energy crops, employing TPB to identify attitudes
and intentions, and asserting the salience of how policy and practice interact. The authors
noted a paucity of literature focusing on farmers’ agency, lending weight to my inclusion of
practitioners’ perspectives.
This dissertation sought to identify how peak oil is framed. The placing of a frame excludes
some information and perspectives and selects others. It renders visible or influential
particular facts and suggests the desirability or undesirability of particular outcomes or means,
acting to favour particular policies and practices and disfavour others. Paradigms and
ideologies impose a narrative frame defining problems and conscionable solutions: they
“make a potential future more thinkable and concrete, justifying measures that promise to
realise it” (Franco et al. 2010 p7). They suggest “principles of action, as well as
methodological prescriptions and practices for actors subscribing to the same frame”, and as
such their identification can help explain developments between public and private actors
(Franco et al. 2010 p7). These frames constitute high-level drivers of policy and practice, so a
vital context for this dissertation is provided by conceptual theories in the literature, where
there was a marked tendency to view policy formulation through a dichotomy of paradigms
variously portrayed as in tension, conflict or transition.
Barling et al (2010) saw the trade liberalisation agenda as having eroded 1970s national food
self-sufficiency objectives (p66), creating an uneasy conceptual co-existence in current UK
policy whereby “well-entrenched” (p61) free-market beliefs guide strategic policy on food
supply security but are incompatible with sustainable farming priorities. Stolze & Lampkin
(2009)’s analysis of drivers of European organics policy described a related tension between
market development and public goods goals (p239), creating policy challenges. Vojtech
(2010) explained agri-environment policies less as in tension with the market approach and
more as a balancing of markets’ failure to reflect the environmental effects of land use.
Dodson et al. (2010 p107), citing Wolf & Nowak (1999 p294), asserted a tendency of the
corporate sector towards environmentally harmful, intensive cultivation. It added a further
marker of this fissure: a tendency in corporate-dominated policymaking to view farm needs as
homogeneous, while environmentally benign farming may demand sectoral diversity.
In her literature review Wright (2005) asserted that a policy, services and knowledge support
system designed for agroecology would tend “away from free-market as the dominant coordination
approach” (p43). This suggested an eco/industrial farming dichotomy in which
maturation of agroecological responses to peak oil depends upon the rise of a non-market
paradigm, a view also asserted in Smaje & Rowlatt (2011 p13).
Freibauer et al. (2011), a foresight exercise for the European Commission, analysed effects on
farming of resource scarcities, including energy. It identified two narratives (p18) tending to
divergent policy directions: The ‘productivity narrative’ saw scarcities as constraints to
essential economic growth, and discounted the importance of socio-ecological complexity. It
favoured infrastructure and market access development, massive intensification of existing
cropland and urgent R&D to raise productivity. The ‘sufficiency narrative’ assumed limits to
growth ordained by ecosystem capacities, believed system diversity built resilience and
favoured demand reduction, conservation, regulated trade, internalised environmental costs
and structural food system change. The authors insisted on “a need to develop the agroecological
paradigm” (p87) and therefore public intervention – implying, as Wright (2005)
did, incompatibility with a laissez-faire framework. Nevertheless, they advocated agricultural
research straddle the two outlooks and argued global trade would remain vital (p93).
Ambler-Edwards et al. (2009), examining factors which may constrain food supply, argued
for paradigm change embracing “eco-technical practices” (p28). It found current policy and
the dominant paradigm failed to support this. Like Barling et al (2010), it examined this
fissure through food supply security, where current UK policy favoured global trade for
attaining domestic security (Ambler-Edwards et al. 2009 p30). It favoured targets for
minimum national production (p130), a strategy for “resilience” (p30) which applied risk
management practice to food security. The authors acknowledged such an approach would be
perceived as counter to free-market imperatives (p30).
Dwyer (2011) proposed a further ingredient to a free-market / ecological fissure. She linked
community land use and ownership models to ‘non-market’ ethics (social inclusion, equity
and stewardship), and suggested these approaches were less influenced by policy or market
signals (p678). This suggestion added weight to my inclusion of farm business models in
Decision- and policy-making theory also proposes macro-level policy drivers, overlapping
with paradigmatic theories. Charles et al. (2007) applied two models to analysis of biofuels
policy: Lindblom (1959)’s incrementalism described present governments’ favouring of
gradual change to avoid disruption to political, social and economic interests: hence a bias
towards first-generation biofuels which can utilise existing crops, methods, supply chains and
infrastructure. A more profound reordering of systems, they argued, such as required for
second-generation biofuels (and, some might add, for systemic retooling for agroecology)
would probably require institutional and decision-making structures which permit Etzioni’s
‘mixed scanning’ model, which he advocated as favouring longer-term thinking, “societal
innovation” and avoiding “hidden structural assumptions” (Etzioni 1967 p385).
Similarly, Freibauer et al (2011) detected bias in agricultural knowledge systems which
favour powerful economic and institutional interests (p87). Dwyer (2011), too, discussed
“institutional cultures and path-dependencies” (p675): inertia was key rather than simply
dispassionate considerations of issue drivers such as climate. She argued UK government
tended to act as enabler in land use policymaking, with strategic directions determined
through stakeholder partnerships – an important context when analysing policy at purely
governmental level. Howard et al. (2009), a review of land use implications of UK energy
policy, echoed this, citing Slade et al (2009) that UK policy “relies on market forces to drive
change” (Howard et al. 2009 ps291). Here policymaking theory melds with ideological
For McMichael (2009a), the biofuels response to energy crisis was driven by capital’s
impulse to seek accumulation – described in Friedmann, McMichael (1989), which
characterised capital accumulation as a principal driver in world food systems. Energy
scarcity was a barrier to accumulation addressed by turning crops into an energy commodity
and “natural processes into value relations” (McMichael 2009a p825). Stated policy drivers
such as climate change disguised this latent driver (p826) and there was an inherent
contradiction between capital accumulation and ecological and social sustainability, the
former wedded to large-scale, input-output models of agriculture rather than cyclical, closedloop
agroecological approaches (p828) featuring small-scale polycultural holdings. Harvey &
Pilgrim (2010) saw sustainable agriculture as requiring paradigmatic change away from a
current “petrochemical technological model” (p10), and Smaje & Rowlatt (2011), a briefing
for parliamentarians, saw agroecology following “different economic logic” (p9) than the
prevailing market liberal orthodoxy, with strategies for food security and economic success
the loci of the fissure. McMichael (2009b), citing Friedmann (2005) on hegemonic
succession, suggested contradictions and tensions, such as those raised by Barling et al (2010)
and Stolze & Lampkin (2009), would signal the next food regime transition (p292). In
McMichael (2010), the “market environmentalism” (p609) of carbon trading and biofuels was
a vain attempt to reconcile the paradigm’s contradictions. Similarly, Dodson et al. (2010), an
overview of energy use in agriculture, posited that the fragility of a complex corporate
agribusiness system might be revealed by shocks to the substance which sustains it, oil, with
transport the key vulnerability linking farmers, input suppliers and markets (p108). Dwyer
(2011) also warned of sudden paradigmatic shock, thanks to the “unique juxtaposition”
(p682) of peak oil, climate change and recession. Each alluded to systemic intricacy
increasing vulnerability through feedback effects flowing through trenchant dependencies and
The literature reveals a consistent conceptual thread: a competing dichotomy of paradigms or
narratives framing policy strategies. There was little confidence expressed in marrying the
narratives coherently and durably. Thus for Smaje & Rowlatt (2011 p13), particular
instruments may help or hinder agroecological farming but, without paradigmatic change,
would be undermined by market distortions, supports and concentrations and the externalising
of environmental costs together suppressing market prices of conventionally produced
products. Structural reforms to embed agroecology, such as land reform and controls on price,
export and production, were not acceptable under the dominant paradigm (p14). The
narratives’ coexistence in policy was characterised as uneasy Barling et al (2010) or
contradictory; where it was recommended to pursue a dual, straddling strategy, it was
explicitly as a hedging tactic as systemic stresses play out unpredictably (Freibauer et al.
Throughout the variations of this dichotomy in the literature, strategic directions, ideological
preferences and specific farming approaches were ranged against supposed oppositions or
incompatibles. In Table 1 these categories are labelled (imprecisely but for simplicity)
‘Capital’ and ‘Ecology’. The consistency in the literature suggests this broad framework for
classifying the framings of peak oil and examining links between paradigmatic narratives and
policy choices.
Table 2: Features of paradigmatic dichotomy in the literature
Capital paradigm Ecology paradigm
Trade liberalisation vs Greater national food self-sufficiency Barling et al 2010
Free markets vs Sustainable farming Barling et al 2010
Private markets vs Internalised environmental costs Vojtech 2010
Market development vs Public goods goals Stolze & Lampkin
Corporate sector, intensive cultivation
/ ‘conventional agriculture’
vs Sustainable farming / agroecology Dodson et al. 2010
p107, Wolf & Nowak
1999 p294, Smaje &
Rowlatt 2011
Homogeneous farming needs vs Sectoral diversity Dodson et al. 2010
Input-output view of agriculture vs Closed-loop, cyclical McMichael 2009a
Productivity narrative: growth
imperative, intensification,
infrastructure, market access
vs Sufficiency narrative: planetary
capacities, demand reduction, diversity,
conservation, trade regulation
Freibauer et al. 2011
Maximisation rationale of markets vs Stability rationale of ecology Freibauer et al. 2011
Agribusiness seeks turnover vs Low-input systems minimise input
Freibauer et al. 2011
Free market co-ordination of
vs Support systems for agroecology Wright 2005
Global trade for security of food
vs Resilience through domestic production Ambler-Edwards et
al. 2009
Free market vs Community land ownership models,
social inclusion, equity, environmental
Dwyer 2011
Incrementalism, existing interests and
infrastructures prevail
vs Mixed scanning, social and system
Charles et al. 2007
Intensive production vs Conservation agriculture FAO 2011b, Collette
et al. 2011
Globalism vs Localism Smaje & Rowlatt
Neoclassical economics vs Ecological economics Smaje & Rowlatt
Economic growth vs Steady state Smaje & Rowlatt
Barling et al (2010) and Lang et al (2011 p22) identified a consistent ideological driver in UK
policy on food supply security: a belief in commercial supply chains’ efficacy in a context of
free-market, free trade liberalism, also the OECD’s strategic worldview. This, they wrote,
neglected systemic supply challenges, agricultural input dependencies and that EU
membership hinders nimble sourcing. Peak oil implications, then, were neglected, considered
neutralised by global trade. A pre-election Conservative Party position challenging this
approach was highlighted, so this dissertation sought to explore whether this became manifest
in coalition policy.
Strachan et al (2006) found a mixture of drivers of UK renewable energy policy: emissions
reduction, secure energy supply and development of rural communities – a combination
identified frequently in the literature, as in Dwyer (2011) on future Common Agricultural
Policy (p678). Howard et al. (2009) found the DTI’s 2003 and 2007 Energy White Papers
included climate change mitigation and security of supply (via diversity in generation) among
key challenges, and the 2009 energy strategy modelled 22% of UK renewable energy coming
from biofuels to meet EU renewables targets, and a biofuel target of 10% in the fuel mix by
2020, implemented through the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).
Lang et al (2011) found oil dependency addressed mostly under climate policy, and here
action to increase fertiliser efficiency and roll out anaerobic digestion (AD) for power
generation was largely limited to exhorting farmers to take voluntary steps (recalling the view
of Howard et al. (2009) and Slade et al (2009) that UK policy avoids prescription). Ambler-
Edwards et al. (2009) diagnosed myopia in hitching food security to global trade, which
downplayed risks including high prices, threats to supply, and global resource competition
(p25). They found food security absent from conceptions of sustainability, which concerned
“loosely connected issues (bio-diversity, carbon emissions)” (p28). This is salient because
peak oil’s place within such linked and intersecting policy issues was central to this
Condliffe (2009) identified no energy security drivers in UK and EU instruments cited.
Climate policy affecting the food system identified in White (2007) featured a greater energy
focus: UK and EU Emissions Trading Schemes covered poultry farming, horticulture and
fertiliser production. But the Climate Change Levy, a tax carrying a discount for energy
efficiencies, did not apply to arable, dairy, beef or sheep farming, creating no incentive for
those sectors to address climate or peak oil imperatives. Vojtech (2010)’s tabulation of agrienvironmental
instruments listed no incentives for UK on-farm energy conservation.
Bioenergy policies’ principal stated drivers, according to the literature, have been energy
security and climate change (eg Dwyer (2011)), as well as income for the rural economy, but
their respective prominence as justifications of policy was fluid. In the UK, Hammond et al
(2008) reported drivers in the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (which requires a given
proportion of biofuels in the fuel mix) as support for farmers and diversification of energy
However, the literature described uncertain implementation, with policy promoting bioenergy
often ineffectual. Pollock (2011), a foresight project on farming futures, saw contradictions
between objectives and outcomes: despite stated climate goals, diesel was subsidised for UK
farms and the RTFO incentivised biofuels “regardless of net carbon cost” (p24). Bomb et al.
(2007) described an excise duty reduction failing sufficiently to balance high biofuel
production costs (p2265), so benefiting waste vegetable oil or imported palm oil rather than
indigenous production. Not citing a source, they claimed biofuels were seen as high-cost
climate mitigation rather than as supporting energy security or farm income. Karp, Richter
(2011) juxtaposed biomass incentives such as the Energy Crops Scheme with low production,
arguing concerns about energy crops jeopardising food security had sapped momentum. The
authors argued (p7) for stronger incentives for perennial energy crops, tied to environmental
credentials, implying policy had failed to realise both energy and climate goals. Sherrington
et al (2008) found the Biomass Strategy failed to set targets for particular biorefinery
feedstocks, so failing to prevent market uncertainty acting as a break on production, an issue
also identified in Hammond et al (2008). Conversely, a decision to allow ‘co-firing’ of mixed
inputs under the Renewables Obligation (a requirement for electricity suppliers to source a
proportion of energy from renewables) was intended to help the supply chain mature. But the
authors detected a shift in the DTI’s stated drivers for the co-firing rule: from helping the
energy crops industry mature to cutting carbon emissions. Climate change as a driver was also
expressed through LECs, certificates exempting electricity generators from the Climate
Change Levy. Similarly, the European Emissions Trading Scheme classified biomass use as
an emissions saving which earns income, claiming a beneficial synergy.
Charles et al. (2007) and Franco et al. (2010) found common drivers at UK and EU levels: for
the UK, greenhouse gas reductions, marginal air quality benefits, a diversified fuel sector (a
possible proxy for energy security) and new markets for agricultural products. (Franco et al.
2010) claimed competing agendas and public opinion altered their relative weight over time,
with climate eventually trumping energy security); for the EU biofuels were an economic
opportunity for the rural sector (which might both serve agribusiness interests and preserve
agrarianism’s place in national psyches) and addressed dependence on non-EU energy. The
authors judged political expediency to be a latent driver: biofuels appeared to constitute action
on climate change and appeased powerful rural lobbies by favouring first-generation biofuels.
The authors classified instruments without citing specific ones: ‘first generation’, such as
emissions standards, used technical performance strictures; ‘second generation’ included
taxes and charges to shape the market to meet policy goals.
Harvey & Pilgrim (2010) claimed the principal driver of EU biofuels instruments to be
climate change commitments under the Kyoto protocol. However, they saw no strategy to
support climate-friendlier second-generation fuels; the failure to augment demand-side policy
with supply-side support jeopardised climate and energy security goals, a claim which
suggests the salience of assertions of policy capture by existing interests and of
‘incrementalist’ policymaking stifling structural change. The claim was contradicted by
Bleischwitz et al. (2009), however, whose analysis of the Seventh Framework Programme for
research and technological development, 2007-2013, found objectives included cutting fuel
import dependency, diversifying energy sources and increasing energy efficiency, driving
research into second-generation biofuels and biorefineries (p45) – although the authors found
no evidence of a more paradigmatic challenge to unsustainable resource exploitation (p45).
Freibauer et al. (2011) found natural resource scarcity an explicit driver in the Europe 2020
strategy. Flagship project Resource-Efficient Europe aimed to decouple economic growth
from resource scarcity (p116): a policy attempt to bridge the paradigmatic dichotomy widely
characterised as unbridgeable in the literature. The authors critiqued nitrogen-related policies
from a ‘sufficiency narrative’ perspective, criticising an input-output, energy-intensive
orientation, proposing instead using nitrogen from waste (p50): thus existing EU policy was
militating against closed-loop approaches associated with the ecology paradigm. Conversely,
Directive 2009/128/EC recommended states incentivise integrated pest management and
organic farming to foster sustainable levels of pesticide use.
Lang et al (2011 p19) found changes to Common Agricultural Policy payments in the 2000s,
away from production subsidies and towards Pillar 2 payments for environmental services,
food safety and animal welfare. This was ironic, they felt: as growing food security concerns
suggested a need for sustainable EU production, subsidies for local production were being
phased out in the name of globalised trade. Freibauer et al. (2011) perceived their ‘sufficiency
narrative’ in trends toward ‘multifunctionality’ of CAP payments aimed at securing both
agricultural goods and ecosystem services; however, their plea that agroecology become a
strategic objective to buffer against shocks, increase productivity and conserve ecosystems
suggested they did not see that narrative yet embedded in policy.
Organic farming, by reducing agrochemical use, represents one partial response to oil
scarcity. However, Stolze & Lampkin (2009)’s review of EU organics policy found quite
different drivers, including, in Regulation 4115/88, its promotion as a counter to the then
problem of surplus production, given its lower productivity. Other drivers included correcting
the market’s failure to protect public goods: organic was seen as a means to protect natural
Table 3: Summary of findings on policy from the literature
Locus Driver / objective Policy / strategy
/ favoured
Instrument Lit. source
Draft RTFO
Support for British
farmers; Diversification
of energy supplies
biofuels in UK
RTFO Hammond
et al 2008
Excise duty reduction
since 2002
Bomb et al.
HM Treasury;
Defra; OECD
Food supply security;
Free-market ideology
supply chains
and markets can
ensure supply
Barling et al
2010; Lang
et al 2011
Defra Climate change Fertiliser
Voluntary steps by
Lang et al
UK renewable
energy policy
Emissions reduction;
Secure and diverse
energy supply;
Development of rural
Strachan et
al 2006
DTI Energy
White Papers
2003 & 2007
Mitigating climate
change; Security of
energy supply
Diversity in
Howard et
al. 2009
UK energy
strategy 2009
Meeting EU renewable
energy targets
10% renewable
energy in
transport by
2020; 22% of UK
energy to be
derived from
RTFO Howard et
al. 2009
UK renewables
Encourage market to
Allowing of cofiring
of mixed
Renewables Obligation Sherrington
et al 2008
EU / UK biofuel
policies and
GHG reductions; Air
quality; Diversified fuel
sector; Markets for
agricultural produce;
Preservation of agrarian
cultural role; Political
expediency – visible
climate action &
appeasing rural
interests; reduced
energy import
Primarily firstgeneration
Emissions standards and
other tech. rules; Fiscal
measures to shape
market; Govt purchase
of vehicles; mandatory
biofuels in fuel mix
Charles et
al. 2007;
Franco et al.
EU biofuel
Energy security; climate
biofuels after
Rural development
funding predicted to
incentivise energy
Dwyer 2011
UK biofuels
Support for UK farmers;
Diversification of energy
RTFO Hammond
et al 2008
UK biofuels
and biomass
Maturation of energy
crops industry; GHG
Biomass Strategy
(though fails to provide
market certainty);
Renewables Obligation –
minimum renewables in
elec. Generation; LECs;
Energy Crops Scheme –
per hectare payments
et al 2008
UK biofuel
Climate change
Biofuels Excise duty reduction
incentive (insufficient)
Bomb et al.
On practitioner responses to oil scarcity and their intersection with policy, Wright (2005)’s
findings on Cuban farmers’ retrospective views were an enlightening context for my
interviews with farmers on their current and future needs. Pest, yield and quality problems
worsened; biodiversity and farmer knowledge benefited; agrochemical shortages were less
problematic than petrol scarcity; and access to quality seed was a priority (p268). Wright cited
research highlighting the importance of learning and supportive institutions in making a
transition to low-oil agriculture (p41). This added to the case for including questions on
farmers’ networks and their views on efficacy of policy and agricultural research. While
Wright’s literature review found little material on how post-oil transition in agriculture might
be institutionally supported, Cuban policy responses included self-sufficiency efforts at all
levels; localised distribution, storage and processing; increased land access; R&D and
training; and halving of subsidies.
Ambler-Edwards et al. (2009) identified specific ‘eco-efficient’ practices and needs with the
emerging eco-agricultural paradigm, including: biogas for energy generation; fertiliser
systems which reduce run-off; waste biomass as fertiliser; drip irrigation to reduce water use;
and R&D to support transition to lower-input, closed-loop farming systems. The prescriptive
list provided a useful reference when interviewing farmers on their own responses and
analysing their identification with a so-called eco-agricultural paradigm.
Mattison & Norris (2007) and Sherrington et al (2008) provided insights into drivers of
farmers’ decisions on bioenergy crops, which may have some transferability to those pursuing
other innovations. Mattison & Norris (2007) found drivers included the perceived difficulty of
switching to or growing a crop, price return and whether production could safeguard arable
farming. Advice they valued was that from their agronomist, other experienced farmers and a
crop research organisation. Sherrington et al (2008) found worries over market stability, the
effects on land of a specific crop (willow) and the reversibility of embarking on production.
Financial return was a crucial driver, as were views on climate change and energy supply:
participants foresaw these driving future demand. Policies which would encourage take-up,
they said, included capital grants for start-ups and grants to mature the market, as power
station contracts provided insufficient financial return.
Table 4: Summary of findings on practice from the literature
Context Drivers /
Practices Policy preferences Lit. source
Sudden oil
scarcity: national
food supply
security; soaring
cost or
unavailability of
oil-derived inputs
Pesticide and
fertiliser scarcity
less problematic
than petrol
Pest, yield, quality
were challenges
Learning and support
institutions crucial as farmers
learn or re-learn adaptive
Social food programmes
support farming and food
Self-sufficiency encouraged
Localised distribution, storage
and processing
Increased land access rights
Wright 2005
Food production
with natural
resource and
Biogas generation
Fertiliser pollution
Waste biomass
replaces chemical
Water conservation
R&D targeted to support
knowledge of lower-input,
closed-loop farming
Edwards et
al. 2009
Economic viability
Perceptions of
ease of crop
Concerns re
effect on land and
Climate change
Future energy
Bioenergy crop
production, eg
willow, miscanthus
Capital grants for start-up
Instruments to mature the
market and improve / stabilise
financial returns
Mattison &
Norris 2007;
et al 2008
Declarations and assumptions
I was led to this dissertation topic by interests in the environment and peak oil, having been
involved in the Transition Towns movement (which seeks responses to peak oil) and the
Green Party. I have hoped to maintain an empirical approach but recognise that all studies are
informed by assumptions – declared or not, conscious or not. My conscious positions, though
contestable, were, I hope, arrived at carefully through reading discussions and data around
peak oil, but must be regarded as my own framing assumptions: First, that peak oil is
imminent or recently past, and will culminate in a peak in total energy. Secondly, that fossil
fuel scarcity and volatile and rising costs of inputs are permanent. Thirdly, that this generates
certain logical requirements for farming systems (referred to throughout as ‘peak oil
imperatives’), i.e. to remain economically and logistically viable, farms must reduce or
substitute fossil fuel reliance and/or establish alternative or additional income-generating
pathways to mitigate business failure risk.
For documentary policy sources, a core period of 2009 to 2011 was selected in order to focus
on the most up-to-date positions in a still maturing and fast-moving policy field, but including
earlier sources to provide context and trace developments, reflecting Barling et al (2010)’s
approach. In the UK the focus was particularly on post-2010 election discourse in order to
augment and develop the existing comprehensive analysis of late 2000s policy in the
Local and devolved governments have considerable roles in relevant fields. However, these
levels had to be excluded given the multiplication of sources and this study’s time and length
constraints. Where UK policy is examined it must be assumed to be salient primarily to
England. EU policy is included, given its major role in UK food and farming policy Lang et
al (2011 p19).
Data from farming practitioners was collected to provide a holistic coherence: policy in
isolation would provide an incomplete picture in a study concerned ultimately with farming
practices and viability. The validity (albeit rarity) of this approach was confirmed by the
literature, best expressed by Wright (p40): “Farmers occupy the key position of having the
primary relationship with the natural resource base, and the way in which they engage with
these [institutional, policy, market] supports is also crucial.” Sherrington et al (2008 pp2504-
5) similarly highlighted the importance of farmer attitudes and intentions in a changing policy
Literature review
Searches for relevant literature were undertaken using Ebscohost and Google Scholar search
engines and the City University, London library catalogue. Key words used and combined
Table 5: Key words and phrases used in literature search
Peak oil / oil
Biofuel / bioenergy /
Policy / policies
UK / United Kingdom
Britain / British
EU / European Union
Additional sources were located through citations in the literature, and references in news
media, social media and email bulletins. The review sought to identify methodologies,
conceptual frameworks and relevant findings.
Primary policy data
Sources sought addressed energy or farming policy, or both, including strategic policy
documents, legislation, regulatory instruments, briefing notes, speeches, declarations,
government web pages, proposals, working papers and consultation papers. Citations from the
literature review and from other, grey literature were followed up. Citations in primary
sources led to further primary sources in order to trace developments in time. Government
websites were searched and browsed. News and social media references to policy were
investigated. Documents were searched by keywords (as per the second column above),
contents lists consulted, summaries read and often the entire text read or browsed.
A consistent collection method was employed, informed by Bleischwitz et al (2009 p39)’s
rigorous example and Hart’s record sheet (Hart 1998 p146), with relevant information
tabulated as below:
Table 6: Documentary data collection record sheet categories
Document name, date
Document type and status
Peak oil explicitly mentioned or not, contested or not
Possible proxies / euphemisms used
Perceived / stated implications
Other policy drivers / interaction of drivers
Strategies and stated objectives
Policies / instruments
Practices favoured
Qualitative analysis was employed. Whether peak oil was mentioned, and contested or
accepted, and the description of its implications, were considered indicator s of the extent to
which it had been weighed in policy formation, as were proxy terms or possible or partial
euphemisms, such as resource scarcity, security, resilience and diversity. (There is an
analytical difficulty in these possible proxies, anticipated at the outset: it was often unclear
whether, for example, a stated concern for food security sprang from analysis of peak oil,
climate, geopolitics, another driver or a combination, rendering the issue drivers sometimes
not explicit.) The presence and weight given to other drivers were examined, and how they
were characterised as in synergy or tension with peak oil imperatives. These factors were
considered potentially significant to policy choices: for example, an assumption of simple
synergy between carbon reduction and peak oil imperatives would fail to account for food
carbon footprints not exactly matching food nitrogen footprints (Freibauer et al. 2011 pp49-
50), leaving peak oil only partially addressed; timescales for necessary mitigation might differ
significantly; or energy security concerns ignoring climate imperatives might favour highemission
A hierarchy or ‘waterfall’ of frames and drivers of responses to peak oil was conceived
(Figure 1), informed by the literature and especially by Wright (2005 p45 Fig 3.1)’s
framework. A driver might influence or require particular choices in policy or practice, or be
used to justify such; a frame – such as a paradigmatic or ideological narrative – might inform
and delimit how a problem is characterised and what strategies and instruments are desirable.
At a macro level were paradigms, ideologies and decision-making, and policy formation and
institutional cultures (Charles et al. 2007). Below these were often multiple objectives, often
in synergy or tension with each other; and associated strategies; each might be influenced by
macro-level frames and by external forces such as interest lobbies, or evidence for climate
change or oil depletion. These in turn would inform the choice of policies and instruments –
which, finally, might affect the choice or success of farming practices. Thus, for example, a
neo-liberal ideological stance might engender strategy and objectives favouring free trade, in
turn framing the choice of policy instruments, the effects of which might influence farming
choices (in turn also subject to other factors acting on farmers’ decision-making). The macro
level was rarely stated explicitly in policy discourse but might be inferable; the levels below
were more manifest. Argumentation analysis and identification of inference of indicators was
employed to identify logic pathways sometimes linking drivers to policy. During collection
and analysis I also remained cognisant of the value of interpreting the policy discourse
through a dichotomy of paradigms, with their constituent beliefs, preferences and biases,
collated from multiple sources in the literature.
Primary practitioner data
Logistical limitations dictated that data collection from practitioners could not seek to be
statistically representative. Instead it sought narratives and insights illuminating the drivers
acting on decision-making by individual farming practitioners aware of peak oil. If policy was
to address peak oil imperatives, there was value in the perspectives of what might constitute a
vanguard aware of, and sometimes acting in accordance with their perception of, the issue.
Figure 1: A ‘waterfall’ hierarchy of framers and drivers
Key: Arrows represent a driving or framing influence being exerted
Participants were sought directly or through intermediaries via internet searches, farming
news websites, bioenergy suppliers, producer and professional organisations, organic
organisations, renewable energy organisations, all-party parliamentary issue groups and a
farming web forum. Regretfully it was not possible to secure the heterogeneity hoped for,
creating a heavy weighting towards organic and agroecological and an absence of bioenergy
and conventional producers. Conversations with actors in the sector suggested that few
conventional or biofuel farmers were aware of the issue and still fewer incorporated it into
decision-making, the latter often selling the same harvest as food or bioenergy feedstock
based simply on best price return (McGregor 2011), which is a notable finding in itself.
Biomass producers were perhaps more likely to engage with the issue if their crop did not
have dual food/energy potential, but one offer of participation arrived too late for inclusion.
However, a mix of arable, livestock and mixed horticulture and livestock was achieved.
Paradigmatic norms /
Ideologies / Decisionmaking
Objectives Strategies
External factors,
issues, events,
Farming practice
External factors,
issues, events,
Policies / Instruments
trial & error
Interviews were by telephone with four practitioners. A semi-structured method allowed
clarifications, expansions and unexpected areas to be explored, a mode of inquiry suitable to
qualitative research (Bryman 2004 p23) and prudent as the interviewer was a layperson on
farming practice. A pilot was carried out to ascertain the time required and allow
modifications. Questions (see Appendix) were chosen to illuminate the drivers of decisionmaking,
including policy as aid or hindrance, their beliefs and attitudes, perceived agency
(Dodson et al. (2010) had posited a severance of farmers from decision-making power),
professional and issue network relationships (whose “substantial influence” was suggested in
Dodson et al. (2010 p106)), perceptions of peak oil and effective on-farm responses. Specific
detail on practice was sought, and views on making policy more effective.
Research question 1
To what extent and how have peak oil and its implications for farming been
defined in EU and UK government energy and agriculture policy discourse?
UK energy policy
UK energy policy has been largely devoid of links made to the implications of oil depletion
for farming, but is integral to understanding the place and framing of peak oil in wider policy
Despite peak oil analysts’ complaints that government is dismissive of peak oil theory (eg
UK-ITPOES (2010 p35)), HM Treasury used the phrase in a 2008 report on global
commodities, defining it as “lack of reserves” (HM Treasury 2008 p40). Citing IEA analysis,
it predicted demand could be met until 2030. However, investment requirements and market
(not geological) conditions made a “supply crunch” likely by 2015 (p39).
DECC (2009b),written in 2009 but not published until 2011, shared those conclusions
(pp4,18,35) and noted future UK import needs soaring from 8% to 60%. However, those
predicting early or late peaks were ignoring, respectively, high prices’ ability to stimulate
investment, and barriers to nimble market responses (p13), a point raised in Lang et al (2011
p22). The message was of extreme unpredictability and long lead times for mitigating peak oil
(DECC 2009b p4). Higher oil and input prices were likely (pp5,16) and transport was
particularly vulnerable (pp4,18). Biofuels were recommended as an element of a response
(p5), though reservations expressed about associated carbon emissions and competition with
food production (p21). Biofuels would be a ‘bridge’ (p21) – but to unnamed technologies or
to localisation of economies as transport ranges contract was not clarified. Former minister
Malcolm Wicks’ energy security report (Wicks 2009) drew similar conclusions and
recommended investment to meet demand because fossil dependency would persist in sectors
including agriculture and transport (p5) – an analysis assuming industrial agriculture rather
than contemplating oil-free farming and localised markets. His prescription was supply-side,
advocating buffer stocks and guaranteed renewable energy prices.
Public government treatments remained oblique. The Renewable Energy Strategy (HM
Government 2009d) discussed growth in global energy demand (p10) and security of supply
(p4) without touching on depletion. The government’s response to Wicks (DECC 2010c)
ignored global depletion and expressed confidence in gas import arrangements (pp27,28),
market supply, energy efficiency and bilateral supply treaties (p7). Agriculture went
unmentioned, though DECC had expressed caution over transport biofuels’ complexity and
limited potential to cut oil consumption (DECC 2009a p16). It stated that decline in global oil
investment could create a ‘crunch’ (p107). Gas demand could be met but with supply and
price risks (p8). Supplier and infrastructure diversity (p9), moves to a low-carbon economy
(p6), “more transparent” global markets and “consumer-producer dialogue” (p109) would
provide resilience.
More salient now is the position of the coalition government. In September 2007, Blueprint
for a Green Economy (Gummer & Goldsmith 2007), submitted to the Conservative shadow
cabinet, explained (p394) and named (pp24,362,393,394) ‘peak oil’, which would have “vast”
(p394) consequences for the UK as it became a net importer, including costlier agricultural
inputs (p159).
The Conservative manifesto (Conservative Party 2010a) promised to boost energy security
(p89) but referred to a domestic rather than global supply ‘crunch’ (p91). Labour had left
Britain “exposed” (p93), but the prescription of diversified gas sources, long-term contracts
and increased storage was not a radical departure. These strategies emerged in the Annual
Energy Statement (DECC 2010a) alongside maximising remaining UK fossil extraction and
electrifying heat and transport (p11).
The following year DECC took the position that increased import dependency was not a
problem because reliable supplies had always been found in the past (DECC 2011c p14). A
laissez-faire strategy meant gas security would depend on market arrangements for delivery to
the UK (p12), while high prices would stimulate increased efficiency and more competitive or
new energy sources (pp6-7). A market-oriented response to the risk of being outbid by other
importing countries was formulated: the cap on gas prices would be removed to allow the UK
to pay for supplies at a time of shortages (DECC 2010b p2; DECC 2011b). Alternative energy
was, however, part of the security mix, including biofuels (DECC 2011c p15). As for
potential crises, short term risks were mitigated by IEA stocks and an Emergency Plan for
Fuel. (The Plan’s ‘summary of response tools’ does not mention implications for agriculture
of supply interruption (DECC undated).)
Significant evolution of the discourse occurred in 2011. First, the department briefly
summarised (DECC 2011a) the history and disputes of ‘peak oil’, (eg. geological versus
geopolitical causes). However, it avoided conclusions, and claims that it had agreed to work
on an “oil shock response plan” (Murray 2011) remain unconfirmed. Secondly, it
acknowledged it was “aware” (Shankleman 2011) of conclusions that conventional oil
production was unlikely to grow further.
In summary, the discourse has gradually included explicit references to peak oil rather than
atomised symptoms only, though efforts persist not to link peak causally to ‘crunch’. There
remains striking faith in global markets, international and bilateral contracts, storage and UK
purchasing power to assure supply even in scenarios of shortage, conflict and resource
nationalism. Prescriptions remain largely supply-side; regarding demand, there is an
assumption of long-term agricultural and transport fossil fuel dependence, implying a
continued high-input, industrialised model and long supply chains. Where agriculture features
in demand-side equations it is as a potential source of bioenergy to reduce fossil fuel demand.
Confident but undissected assertions that addressing climate change and energy security enjoy
simple synergies mix with doubts about impact on emissions and other issue drivers such as
food security and biodiversity.
UK food and agriculture policy
A 2008 Cabinet Office analysis acknowledged food chain fossil fuel dependency – including
fertiliser and feed – and voiced concern about UK reliance on few, unstable energy producers
(Cabinet Office 2008 p79). Because higher energy costs aggravated food prices (p9), food
logistics resilience was of public interest, and energy security measures were crucial (p72),
with contingency planning necessary and possibly state interventions where markets fail to
ensure food security (p73).
The government linked food and energy security again the following year (HM Government
2009b), citing its Food Security Assessment (Defra 2009, 2010) which established indicators
on energy reliability, import diversity, stock levels, business continuity and road capacity. Its
strategy was not greater food self-sufficiency, which would increase vulnerability to, for
example, animal disease. Resilience would come through sourcing food from global markets
but ensuring security of energy for fertilisers and machinery for domestic production (HM
Government 2009b p6).
In the Food 2030 strategy (Defra 2010b), peak oil was unmentioned but inferable: resourceefficiency
was necessary in an energy-dependent food chain (p24); inputs including fertiliser
should be reduced (p35) and price spikes were possible (p24). Utilising land for both food and
environmental goods, and agroecological practices such as integrated pest management, were
advocated. However, the stated driver was most often climate change. Global trade was key to
food supply resilience, and farmers should be exposed and responsive to liberalised global
markets (p22).
A government food research strategy (GO-Science 2010) warned energy demand would, with
other stresses, create a “perfect storm” (p10) to test the global food system. Energy prices
would affect fuel, machinery, transport and fertiliser (p11). Yet an update of Defra’s
sustainable food system indicators (Defra 2010c) in the same month failed to include security
of oil-derived inputs.
The Conservatives’ agriculture manifesto (Conservative Party 2010b), responding to similar
concerns, promoted the sector’s potential contribution to energy security (p15) through biogas
and biomass, and the post-election coalition agreement (HM Government 2010) duly
mandated a “huge increase” (p16) in anaerobic digestion (AD).
Post-election, the new Defra Secretary soon also warned of a “perfect storm” (Spelman
2010b) of energy, water and food shortages, the first a concern also voiced by the Chief
Scientific Adviser (GO-Science 2011 p4). The minister’s preferred strategy was to foster
“innovation” enabling “sustainable intensification” (Spelman 2010b) – greater productivity
with fewer inputs – and she spoke approvingly of practices for natural pest control and
pollination. In the coalition’s response to Common Agricultural Policy reform proposals
(Defra 2011d p1), similar gestures were made towards conservation practices, while Defra’s
business plan (Defra 2011b) argued sustainable natural resource use could meet needs
including energy and soil fertility (p1).
A Natural Environment White Paper (HM Government 2011b) continued these themes: peak
oil was not mentioned but food and energy security and resource efficiency were prominent.
That it proposed indicators showing critical resource availability and progress towards
weaning-off (p64) suggests some urgency entering government analysis. Yet elsewhere,
energy security was a “global” ambition (p58), implying continued faith in trade for sufficient
The Anaerobic Digestion Strategy and Action Plan (DECC & Defra 2011) gave AD a
significant place in energy, waste and land use policy. The drivers included methane’s
potential to reduce reliance on gas imports and AD’s ability to provide “secure” on-farm
inputs (pp6,16) (nitrogen was acknowledged as a “critical” resource (p15)) – and reduce
vehicle use given the potential for piping AD fertiliser product onto fields (p11).
Peak oil, then, goes almost unmentioned even in recent food policy discourse, but its
implications increasingly acknowledged, including vulnerabilities around fuel, fertiliser and
machinery. There is a straddling of the paradigms described in the literature: a professed faith
in free markets to provide food and energy security but also a call for ‘sustainable’
production, the enablers of which remain ill-defined but appear to include agroecological
techniques. However, the minister’s high ambitions for UK agricultural exports suggest
intensification cannot be limited to this. It may imply greater use of biotechnology for
developing higher-yielding varieties – circumstantially supported by the role of biotechnology
companies in selecting the strategic direction of agricultural research (Defra 2011c pp2-3;
BBSRC 2010). The agroecological paradigm is very far from accepted in full, in fact;
exposure of farmers to global market forces would suggest an advantage to those able to
achieve economies of scale, rather than the ecological preference for mixed farming,
diversity, smaller holdings and short supply chains. Climate remains the most prominent
driver for energy use reduction, a synergy with peak oil imperatives but carrying risks if peak
oil is not fully included in analysis-to-strategy work.
EU energy policy
In June 2011 Europe’s energy commissioner frankly acknowledged peak oil:
“More and more people compete for an increasingly scarce
commodity. We all know that oil will run out some day. The exact date
is certainly under discussion, but there is a fact that nobody can deny,
getting oil out of the earth is now much more difficult and expensive
that it used to be. […]The era of cheap and easily available oil is
Piebalgs (2011)
However, EU energy policy had been acknowledging global finiteness of oil, or the
symptoms, for several years. In 2006 oil supply risks constituted “the most severe security of
supply challenge” (European Commission 2006a p2), a ratcheting up of rhetoric since the
2003 biofuels directive (European Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003 p42),
which had allowed non-binding state targets for biofuels within the fuel mix. Biofuels
represented the sole possible large-scale oil replacement for transport (European Commission
2006a p2). Accordingly, a subsequent directive (European Parliament, European Council
2009), set mandatory targets– though with sustainability criteria and caveats prominent (a
tension between drivers explored in Question 2).
Risks from energy import dependency and limits to and concentration of fossil fuel supplies
were noted in European Commission Communications in 2006 (European Commission 2006b
p3), 2007 (European Commission 2007 pp4,26) and 2010 (European Commission 2010e).
The analysis saw EU demand remaining high despite efficiency improvements and
renewables (European Commission 2007 pp10) though how demand would be met was
unknown; favoured response included sometimes binding relationships with non-EU
suppliers, and “solidarity” mechanisms ruling member state responses to energy crisis
(pp10,19): legal and institutional efforts to head off resource nationalism. The European
Council was empowered (EU 2007) to implement undefined measures should energy supply
problems materialise (p72). New treaty article 176A enshrined the aims of energy security
(p88), but there remains disquiet that member states “do not respect the EU strategic interests
in the energy field” (DG-Energy 2011 p1).
The anxiety driving these measures was expressed in the Energy 2020 strategy (European
Commission 2010b p4) and later texts (European Commission 2011d) which fretted about EU
impotence to influence global market energy flows. That it envisaged drawing in non-EU
states to EU regulations, particularly those important for energy supply (pp18-19), and
planned for common foreign and security policy to have an energy security remit, underlined
the gravity of the analysis. A fuller Communication is expected in September 2011. The
eagerness to speed a package of “standards, rules, regulations, plans, projects, financial and
human resources, technology markets [and] social expectations” (European Commission
2011d p20) amounts to a mobilisation of institutional and economic resources rendering
energy security a key European project.
The Commission’s White Paper on transport (European Commission 2011c) gave reasons for
this urgency: oil scarcity if not addressed would jeopardise travel and trade (p3). Because
reduction in mobility was “not an option” (pp5-6), ‘sustainable fuels’ were favoured.
However, in a staff working document (European Commission 2011g), first-generation
biofuels were plainly falling from favour thanks to concern over effects on the environment,
emissions and food production (p79). Favouring of algal- and waste-based fuels suggests new
opportunities for farming. Work on second- and third-generation biofuels was vital to resolve
tensions between energy and environmental objectives. Energy efficiency has also been
strongly promoted, as a demand-suppressing means to energy security (European
Commission 2011a p2; DG-Environment 2010), but so have supply-side tactics including
exploiting European unconventional fossil fuel deposits (p3) (contradicting climate
Frank and open analysis of peak oil appears, then, to have a longer history at EU than at UK
level (though the phrase is hardly used), and analysis of the predicament is more stark. A
commonality is reliance on relations with oil producing countries, but EU uncertainty about
its leverage and its ability to prevent its members’ national self-interest begs questions of the
UK’s own faith in its competitive bidding power. Where farming is affected is via the
continuation of mandatory biofuel targets, but these have been loaded with caveats as disquiet
over environmental and food security has accumulated.
EU food and agricultural policy
A 2009 Communication on a better-functioning food supply system (European Commission
2009) did not, strikingly, include analysis of energy, fertiliser or other agricultural inputs.
However, in 2010 a Communication (European Commission 2010a) on industry and
sustainability named energy scarcity among issues reshaping the food system, resolution of
which should sit alongside addressing an imbalance of power favouring retailers over
producers (p28): apparently disparate issues, but a link also made strongly by farming
practitioners under Question 4; (European Commission 2009) similarly promoted the need for
greater market transparency.
The November 2010 Communication on future CAP reform (European Commission 2010c)
addressed food security, productive capacity and volatile agricultural markets (p5), but failed
to make a link to oil supply. The link was made in a simultaneous consultation document
(European Commission 2010h): energy uncertainty would heighten food price volatility and
input costs (p10); agriculture could produce bioenergy of various kinds, the legislative driver
being the Renewable Energy Directive but the stated issue driver more often climate change
than oil depletion (p6). In March 2010 a DG-Agri director was more explicit – energy
weighed “ heavily, directly and indirectly, on production costs” (Haniotis 2011 p4) – pointing
to a 163% rise in fertiliser prices since 2000 and 223% in energy costs (p5). Higher
production with fewer inputs was his prescription (pp6,10).
The link made in policy discourse was consolidated when a conference organised by DG
Research & Innovation (EU Standing Committee on Agricultural Research 2011) placed
energy supply among “grand challenges” to agriculture and food security (p1); the conference
website warned of dwindling fossil fuels (DG Research & Innovation 2011b); mainstream
food systems depended upon cheap inputs, yet resource scarcity had been overlooked (p2).
Efficient, sustainable production –through boosting biodiversity and decoupling production
from intensive resource use (p2) - was prescribed. A Communication on Resource-Efficient
Europe (European Commission 2011d) echoed this analysis, and favoured technological
improvements to seeds and roots for increased yields, and marginal lands brought into
production (p16). Biofuels went unmentioned in its modelled optimistic scenario for
transport, which focused on electrification.
A Communication on “challenges in commodity markets and raw materials” (European
Commission 2011e) also analysed farming implications, saying permanently higher input
prices would cancel out higher returns for farmers from agricultural products (p6).
Peak oil imperatives, then, have entered EU farming policy discourse later and with less
urgency than into energy policy, but an understanding may be taking root which goes beyond
biofuels potentially to recognise input cost and scarcity’s economic consequences for farmers
and how market structure reform might address them, along with risks to productivity.
Whereas climate change as a driver tended to exempt agriculture from steep carbon
reductions, peak oil’s distinct dynamics appear increasingly to be informing policy discourse.
Research question 2
What are the stated drivers for policy discourse addressing peak oil
imperatives in farming and energy, and how are their synergies and tensions
Given the recent entry of peak oil into policy discourse, and that farming policy must
synthesise a growing number of old and new challenges, peak oil imperatives may be
addressed yet may have been arrived at from different premises, such as the need to
decarbonise farming or reduce nitrogen pollution. While synergies may exist for these drivers,
the question of which issues and framing paradigms act as drivers may have consequences for
strategy, choice of instruments, timescale for action and promotion of particular farming
practices. Question 2 therefore sought to establish, where stated or inferable, the drivers for
reducing fossil fuel dependency in farming and diversifying farm income, where there were
overlapping drivers, where peak oil was located in this constellation and how synergies and
antagonisms played out in policy choices.
UK coalition policy
A useful starting point for examining the development of policy under the UK coalition
government elected in 2010 is the 2007 shadow cabinet paper ‘Blueprint for a Green
Economy’ (Gummer & Goldsmith 2007). It described energy, water, food and climate
security as co-drivers, if often in tension (p22). A multifunctional countryside would provide
food, water, fuel and carbon sequestration (p136), and synergies with economic growth were
possible if, for example, carbon pricing internalised environmental costs and catalysed new
technologies (p23). However, market forces would not remunerate farmers for environmental
goods: public payments were necessary (p169). Relocalised food systems and domestic
production were promoted (pp153,157-8) – this, not global trade (p160), was key to food
security. The document – and other pre-election positions (Hamer 2010) – thus embraced
elements of the ecological paradigm. Later, in campaign statements, climate gained clear
primacy as policy driver (Conservative Party 2010a; Conservative Party 2010b) and synergies
with rural economy were promoted: biogas production would provide farmers income and
savings (Conservative Party 2010b pp15,16), incentivised – along with biomass – through
Feed-in Tariffs (p17) [see Table 7]. Favoured strategic directions included ending production
subsidies, simplification of farm inspections and promotion of local food (Conservative Party
2010a p97).
Post-election, for the new Defra Secretary raising food productivity while ensuring
environmental protection required “innovation” (Spelman 2010b): undefined but perhaps with
implications towards biotechnology, particularly given the minister’s experience in that sector
(Spelman 2010a).
The 2010 Annual Energy Statement’s goal (DECC 2010a) was “secure, safe, low-carbon,
affordable energy”; reliability was “critical” (p2): a combination of drivers including possible
peak oil proxy terms. There was continuity with the previous government (DECC 2009b p34;
HM Government 2009c pp5,7) in the strategy of maximising domestic fossil fuel extraction
(DECC 2010a p9). Bioenergy was necessary to cutting import dependence and boosting
resilience (p10). Instruments to drive investment should include a higher carbon price and
higher EU GHG targets (p12).
The Fourth Carbon Budget, accepted in full by the government, highlighted the need to
reduce emissions from nitrogen fertiliser (CCC 2010 p297) and farm machinery (p307), an
unstated synergy with peak oil imperatives. A synergy explicitly identified was between
climate and rural development: 70% of abatement measures would save farmers money
(p329). However, there were tensions between drivers: maximising production intensively
could suppress GHG emissions but harm animal welfare or biodiversity – trade-offs requiring
careful management (p307). Objectives and strategies favoured or mooted included
alternative fuels (p296) and biotechnologies necessary to feed a growing world population
(p306). Conventional farming was potentially more effective because its high yields meant
lower carbon per unit of product than organic farming (p307). Given organic’s minimisation
of fertiliser, this formulation demonstrates the potential for climate and peak oil imperatives
to clash. So synergies are not a given – though can be found in the Budget’s approval of
mixed farming for its ability to reduce fertiliser and transport needs (p307). Other practices
favoured form a list – more efficient fertiliser application; livestock bred for higher
productivity; AD (p302) increasingly familiar since the Labour administration (HM
Government 2009c; HM Government 2009a p156). Genetically-modified crops for nitrogen
efficiency were promoted (CCC 2010 p305), but so too were ecological techniques such as
crop residue and biochar application to retain carbon and fertility: a cherry-picking approach
across systems, acknowledged explicitly (p306).
The following year’s Carbon Plan (HM Government 2011a) naturally was driven by the goal
of cutting CO2 emissions. However, it argued low-carbon approaches were in synergy with
energy security (p14). Some emissions-focused concerns indeed tallied with peak oil
imperatives: fertiliser and fuel use were problematic (p49); electricity market reform would
incentivise low-carbon and energy security efforts (p17). Biofuels remained on the agenda,
with projects investigating their feasibility for aviation (p40). Pilot projects would test
“integrated environmental advice for farmers” (p50) and while emissions reduction would be
included there was no further detail on how oil dependency might be addressed through this.
Synthetic fertiliser’s energy and carbon intensity was acknowledged, but a description of the
input as “essential” to food production (p33) suggested a persistent view of farming as an
input-output system. Neither did other prescriptions move far towards the agroecological:
efficiency rather than elimination of fossil inputs, more intensive (‘productive’) livestock
rearing and GPS technology for Controlled Traffic Farming – all informed by emissions
reduction but many carrying synergies with peak oil imperatives, including a 75% fuel cost
saving from CTF (p49). AD was also promoted (p46).
In 2011 the government began firming its stance on CAP reform: its drivers should be global
food security and climate change, to which reduced agricultural inputs should be a
contribution. Protectionist production subsidies were “morally wrong” (Spelman 2010b) and
would hold back European farmers; payments for environmental goods should be
strengthened through a dominant Pillar 2. For farmers, “sustainable intensification”, backed
by “innovation” (Spelman 2010b) would create synergies between environment and farm
economics by cutting input use. In the official submission to the CAP consultation (Defra
2011d), population growth and climate change were stated drivers. Peak oil was not raised but
the related issue of commodity price volatility was, to which the favoured response was
“market-based solutions” (p2): insurance or futures markets rather than state support.
Exposure to liberalised markets was key to efficiency – and this extended to opposing CAP
proposals for a floor level of direct support for small farms, which would “impede
consolidation” and therefore competitiveness (p6).
Defra’s business plan (Defra 2011b) was informed by resource efficiency and food supply
security goals, and set out a number of ‘actions’. Local food production would be promoted –
the instrument being only voluntary exhortations on product origin labelling (p6) rather than
any obligations or incentives. A food chain skills assessment and action plan would be
produced to identify those necessary for a competitive and secure supply (p6). Guidance for
policy makers would be published on how to put financial value on ecosystem services (p15).
And an action plan on risk management around resource scarcity would be produced for
businesses (p16). Departmental sustainability indicators included biodiversity factors
(farmland birds), soil nitrogen, productivity and the number of farmers in higher level
environmental stewardship (p25), a mix expressing a variety of drivers and goals, some with
potential peak oil synergies.
The Natural Environment White Paper (HM Government 2011b) addressed the importance of
monitoring critical resources and reducing dependence, but other drivers were discernible.
Economic growth was both necessary and compatible with food, water, climate and energy
security (p58) and the environment in general (p4). Tensions were acknowledged between
food production and the environment, and stakeholder work would publish conclusions within
a year on how they could be reconciled (pp23-4). Some straightforward synergies were
identified: energy security and biodiversity could benefit from woodland managed as an
energy feedstock (p27); better environmental standards for biomass would allow the sector to
meet energy needs and GHG goals (p23). In terms of strategy, ramping up energy crop
production was “necessary” to combat climate change (pp9-10); a multifunctional vision of
the countryside was put (p27). But where income for environmental services was previously
seen by both the Labour government (Defra 2010b p35) and the then Conservative opposition
(Gummer & Goldsmith 2007 p167) as something the market could not provide, the White
Paper promised (pp24-5) to explore how markets for such things as “carbon sequestration,
flood management, pollination, improving water, soil and air quality” (p27) could develop.
Anaerobic digestion has featured at the intersection of energy and farming policy persistently
and increasingly. Preparatory strategy work under Labour mixed energy security and climate
among stated drivers, along with EU requirements on renewables and cutting landfill waste
(Defra 2009a pp3-4; Defra 2010a p4). As well as reducing emissions, AD would cut farm
energy bills and provide income from selling surplus energy or digestate fertiliser (p6) –
whose on-farm use could also reduce oil-derived fertiliser consumption. Supportive
instruments included various incentives (those in Table 7 plus Rural Development
Programme grants (p10)), standards for digestate, regulatory concessions for smaller, on-farm
AD and clarity on incorporating biomethane in grid power (p1). A £10m pilot, training
standards and advice would be developed (pp1-2) and technical and agronomic research
would further support development (p2). The strategy (DECC, Defra 2011) emerged under
the government and described similar hoped-for synergies as before, and drivers included the
stated need to respond to market demands for food, fuel and ecosystem services (p13).
Criticisms that rules and incentives acted against small-scale AD and failed to mature the
market (Bywater 2011) were tackled: financial incentives’ effectiveness would be examined
(p4), FiTs for AD had been raised (p22), new loans would be developed (p19), regulatory
burdens addressed (p21) and a ‘brochure’ on viability of small-scale AD would be published
(p38). Farming sector grievances remained, however: small-scale AD remained loss-making;
incentive frameworks’ longevity was uncertain; the market remained immature and regulation
mountainous (CLA 2010; CLA 2011).
Table 7: Financial incentive frameworks for bioenergy
Energy Crops Scheme Supports cost of establishing miscanthus or Short Rotation
Coppice. Pays 50% of suppliers / materials / contractors costs
and/or 50% of own labour and machinery. (Natural England 2009
Renewables Obligation Obligation on UK suppliers of electricity to source increasing
proportion of electricity from renewable sources. (Ofgem 2011)
Renewable Transport Fuel
Set course for UK to meet EU obligation of 10% renewably sourced
in transport fuel mix by 2010. Interim targets of: 2009/10—3.25%;
2010/11—3.5%; 2011/12—4.0%, 2012/13—4.5%; 2013/14—5%
(after being modified downwards in light of concerns over effect
on food production and true net GHG effect) (HM Government
2011a; Howard et al. 2009)
Feed-in Tariff Subsidised premium rate paid per unit of electricity generated
from renewable sources and sold back to the grid
Renewable Heat Incentive Subsidised premium rate paid for renewably generated heat
Coalition policy discourse, then, has continuously sought to address energy security, usually
among a host of other policy drivers sometimes in synergy with peak oil imperatives and
sometimes not. But whereas the ‘Blueprint’ presented to the then shadow cabinet showed
evidence of relatively full analysis of the dynamics of peak oil, including threats to the
capacity of global trade to provide food security and therefore a need for relocalising of food
supply, that prescription has altered: global trade and liberalised markets are to the fore in
coalition discourse on energy and farming and frame its policy responses. Techniques which
chime with the agroecological paradigm are frequently promoted in rhetoric, yet preferences
for future farming structures – maximised productivity, large-scale holdings, minimal market
protection – remain within the capital paradigm category. AD technology offers closed-loop
opportunities, with waste providing both energy and fertiliser, but requires capital investment
and there are question marks over whether support is benefiting smaller farmers or larger
agribusiness interests. A multifunctional rural sector has been a consistent and growing
theme, linked to ecosystem services and therefore some agroecological themes but also to
provision by agriculture of the needs of industry and economic growth.
EU policy: energy
Bioenergy has had a significant place in energy and agricultural policy as a response to both
energy security and climate change imperatives. EU discourse has been subject to uncertainty
over whether biofuels in particular could fulfil their climate mitigation objectives and over
tensions with other issue drivers, such as biodiversity and security of food supply.
In 2003 the biofuels directive claimed climate-energy security synergies (European
Parliament & Council of the European Union 2003 p44), introducing non-binding targets for
the proportion of biofuels in the fuel mix, intended to stimulate agricultural production of
them where standards were set. By 2006 the Commission acknowledged earlier claims had
overstated GHG benefits (European Commission 2006a p11), yet now pushed for mandatory
targets, motivated increasingly by fears of oil price and supply risks (p7) and hoping to
preserve the delicate synergies by linking environmental hurdles to farm payments (p12).
Policy continued to walk this tightrope as controversy over environmental harms of biofuels
continued but the need to secure fuel to safeguard transport networks (European Parliament,
European Council 2009 p7) intensified. A 2009 directive made an important shift: targets
were contingent upon viable second-generation fuels free of negative environmental and food
security effects, and criteria were tightened around GHG savings, biodiversity, carbon
sequestration and agro-environmental practice (European Commission 2010f p9). This
represented a setback for energy security strategy: environmental rules could hobble firstgeneration
biofuels, while the much-vaunted second- and third-generation fuels remained
embryonic. Catalysts for accelerated roll-out of later-generation fuels were therefore sought: 9
billion euros into research (European Commission 2010b p16) and double-counting permitted
towards renewables targets (European Parliament, European Council 2009 p41) (measures
which counter Harvey & Pilgrim (2010)’s claim that no support existed). Consequently, while
transport policy described synergies in cutting emissions together with oil dependence
(European Commission 2011c p12) and has mounting concerns over oil supply (European
Commission 2011a), recently it has scarcely mentioned the role of biofuels (European
Commission 2011b), despite being “the only way” four years before (European Commission
2007 p15).
The European Commission’s energy policy (European Commission 2007) combined three
drivers: climate change, reduction of fossil import dependence, and growth and jobs; benefits
to the latter two were assumed to follow the first (p5). Strategies were both demand- and
supply-side: energy efficiency (p11), local, low-carbon energy (p5), binding agreements with
diverse non-EU gas suppliers, infrastructure investment and, again, EU “solidarity” (pp10,19).
Instruments mooted included an extension of emissions trading (p11) to facilitate the market
internalisation of external costs, and higher renewable energy targets (p14).
A later energy text (DG-Environment 2010) was more cautious, seeing potential tensions:
resource scarcity could create difficulties for climate mitigation and adaptation and economic
performance (p2). The policy challenge was to construct economic and environmental
synergies, and resource and energy efficiency were key, particularly in food (p3). Markets’
failure to discourage resource overexploitation was noted; economic “inertia” was hindering
innovation, so markets would require signals such as the internalising of costs (p2) – an
element of the ecological paradigm. In a contemporaneous energy policy Communication
(European Commission 2010b) proposals (p5) on energy addressed intersecting energyenvironment
issues: a biodiversity strategy to safeguard ecosystem services; a CAP
supportive of resource efficiency; trade policy which concentrates on security of supply of
critical resources; and the aim of a ‘circular’ economy making a resource of waste (p6). A
40% reduction in agricultural emissions could be expected, and 60% in transport (p8) (with
obvious benefits around peak oil imperatives if realised).
The Commission’s resource-efficient Europe policy (European Commission 2011d) painted
an initially optimistic picture of efficiencies creating synergies in emissions reduction,
ecological preservation, sustainable food production, reduced reliance on scarce fuels and
resilience to energy price fluctuations (p2), though tensions were acknowledged between use
of land for food and for energy or environmental goods – tensions which demanded
thoughtful co-ordination of policies in “climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw
materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development” (p5). The difficulties
in managing these interactions demanded further work to model resource efficiency measures
in areas including agriculture (p8) – the need for which suggests that understanding of how to
extricate farming from its heavy input use remained embryonic. Indeed, indicators on the
availability and use of natural resources did not yet exist, and required integration into policy
(p9). Favoured instruments included taxes and subsidies to steer consumption of energy and
other resources (p4).
A significant parallel element in policy rhetoric and strategy has recently emerged in which
R&D resources would combine climate, energy, land management and resource use issues,
with a related policy programme to develop a ‘bio-economy’ (European Commission 2010e
p12). This policy strategy was detailed further in 2011 (DG Research & Innovation 2011a): it
recognised the growing importance of biological resources for food, animal feed,
construction, energy and consumer products. The finiteness of many such resources created a
need for “sustainable exploitation”, using new technologies to achieve higher production from
fewer resources, and seeking to meet the needs of farmers, industry and consumers (p1). It
represented, essentially, a strategy to find biological substitutes in multiple areas where fossil
products are currently relied upon – but while maintaining ecosystems and food security (p2):
a delicate balancing act, which Freibauer et al. (2011 110) saw as seeking to synthesise
‘productivity’ and ‘sufficiency’ approaches.
EU policy: agriculture
Several agriculture policy areas, despite lacking explicit peak oil motives, carried potential
synergies. For example, ambitions to reduce GHG emissions from farming meant measures to
protect soil carbon – as through rotation, improved fertiliser application and compost –
attracted credit, while heightened biofuel criteria protecting land with high biodiversity value
might encourage natural pest management (European Commission 2010f p15) – all energysaving
methods (and tending towards agroecology). Rural development funds (Council of the
European Union 2005) have been the principal support for environmental practices, driven by
diverse goals (p3). Payments (p20) and voluntary standards (European Commission 2011f)
for reducing fertiliser and pesticide use were driven by pollution concerns but carried
potential energy security benefits (albeit failing to stem use (European Commission 2010d p3;
European Commission 2010i p15)). In soil policy, if early indications are borne out that a
new, unified policy might promote organic matter recycling for soil health (European
Commission 2010g p3) and thus reduction of inorganic fertilisers, synergies with oil depletion
priorities are possible (if inter-state disagreements (p4) are overcome). European Commission
(2009) echoed interviewees’ points under Question 4: power imbalances had disadvantaged
small farmers in dealing with retailers and wholesalers: obliged to accept smaller margins,
they were increasingly vulnerable to market volatilities and unable to invest and innovate
(p5): a doubly serious hindrance as peak oil effects play out.
This last concern was revived in the latest CAP reform proposals, which declared producers’
needs for a higher share of product value and protection from market volatility (European
Commission 2010c; European Commission 2010h pp8-10). Moreover, structures were
favoured to promote farming diversity, viable small farms and – a central concern of my
interviewees – access to local markets and direct sales (pp7,11) which carries potential
synergies with peak oil imperatives by allowing shorter supply chains and reduced reliance on
transport. Specific support for small farms (p9) and caps on direct payments to large farms
(p7) were favoured (though opposed by the UK).
Oil depletion figured only in the accompanying impact assessment (European Commission
2010h) but perhaps obliquely in references to productive capacity and volatile markets
(European Commission 2010c p5). Ambitions for farming’s role in climate adaptation and
mitigation had potential synergies with peak oil imperatives: in energy efficiency, bioenergy
production and soil health. Other aims and drivers were numerous, including economic
viability secured through rural multi-functionality, encompassing protection for natural
resources and biodiversity, climate, animal welfare, public health, landscape and the viability
of rural communities (pp2-6). Strategically, these necessitated intervention because markets
could not adequately value and regulate public goods provided by agriculture (a further
fissure with a UK seeking means to enable this), and would tend to concentration and
intensive practices, harming productive capacity and economic viability. At the same time,
trade liberalisation had to be accepted (p5). A significant phrase was the need to ‘maintain the
production base’ (p6) for food, feed and energy: recognition that a renewable, functioning
ecosystem was (in a context of fuel and climate imperatives, we might infer) the resource
upon which agriculture – and other sectors – would depend: “green infrastructure” (p11).
Such attention to natural system health suggests an increasing salience for agroecological
conceptions of the resource base.
Instruments proposed included stronger environmental, rather than production, emphasis in
Pillar 1 (p3), while Pillar 2 payments would foster competitiveness, innovation (to enable
“green growth” (p7) and environmental goods. Practices favoured often had an ecological
tone and synergies with oil depletion and environmental objectives: permanent pasture and
crops, rotation (p9), mixed farming (European Commission 2010c p4), organics, extensive
rather than concentrated livestock (reducing oil-dependent feed) (European Commission
2010h p4) and maintaining soil organic matter (p6).
Europe’s research community, however, was warning that the multifunctionality of rural land
as a cross-sector resource would create tensions between objectives and sectors (EU Standing
Committee on Agricultural Research 2011 p3). Agriculture research policy had come late to
these questions (Haniotis 2011 p8) and the urgent role of public research was to reconcile
these trade-offs in line with strategic objectives of energy, water and food security, climate
change and economic health (EU Standing Committee on Agricultural Research 2011 pp1-3).
Overall in these Commission documents there is a consistent linking of different resource
scarcity issues. Often they are characterised as having synergies, though there are
acknowledgements – most often in research circles – of the complexity of achieving these,
and tensions to overcome. Like the UK, EU discourse straddles the paradigmatic dichotomy,
though with some differences. They share a preference for prioritising ‘efficiency’ of resource
use, which is potentially helpful as input prices rise, but does not eliminate dependence.
Unlike the UK, there is EU recognition that markets do not always provide: they feature lockin
and may require intervention to tackle failures over societal goods provision. Similarly,
small farms appear to have come to the fore of EU resilience thinking, which sees benefits in
them for productivity and ecosystems, but they are actively discouraged in UK proposals.
However, in each is a clinging to economic growth as a goal, but the compatibility of growth
with replenishable, truly renewable natural resources – in the absence of growing oil supply –
is not questioned, explored or explained. The combination of the multifunctionality goal and
the ‘bioeconomy’ represent an intriguing attempt to address agriculture’s environmental
harms, navigate its resource scarcities and establish it as a source of fossil fuel product
substitution. Whether this is done convincingly will be clearer when the bioeconomy strategy
emerges later in 2011.
Research question 3
What approaches in practice are being pursued by UK farming practitioners
aware of peak oil issues, and what are their drivers?
A number of different approaches may be pursued by farming practitioners responding to
peak oil. The rising cost of fuel may lead some to see an economic opportunity in cultivating
biofuels. Others might seek resilience by reducing oil-derived inputs. Each may have been
brought to their position by their perception of peak oil, professional networks or
geographical particularities, among other factors. Each approach may have different
implications for their practices as well as for their post-farm gate links, such as to markets and
distributors. Table 8 sets out the key characteristics of the farms and participants in this study.
Table 8: Farm and participant characteristics
Farm Type, characteristics, produce Ownership model Interviewee
Farm A 170 acres in SW England with 30
beef cattle and a small number of
pigs; 20 acres of woodland
including six acres of nut
plantation; organic
Private family business;
owner-occupied land
Farmer A is the principal
farmer and decision-maker
Farm B 70 acres, SW England; undulating
topography; mixed beef and lamb:
24 breeding cows, 45 ewes;
Private family business;
land owned outright
Farmer B is the principal
farmer and decisionmaker;
founded farm
without farming
experience after leaving an
unrelated profession
Farm C 93 hectares, East Anglia; silty clay
loam soil, high organic matter;
organic arable
Private limited
company; tenancy on
county council-owned
Farmer C is principal
decision-maker and sole
Farm D 175 acres, SE England; heavy clay
soil; set across a high valley; dual
purpose dairy / beef cattle, soft
fruit, orchard, hens, sheep, pigs,
fodder and cover crops, green
manure crops, temporary pasture;
Private limited
company; tenancy on
land owned by principal
farmer’s family member
Practitioner D has worked
closely with principal
farmer D (not interviewed)
since the farm’s founding
Drivers: priorities and contexts
Participants were asked about the uppermost factors in their decision-making. Farmer A
sought to farm without putting undue pressure on natural resources and to produce high
quality produce, describing it as “low-carbon”, “transition” farming. For Farmer B, peak oil
was most significant, having spurred him to take up farming: “resilience” to fuel prices and
possible shortages was his priority. Farm D was founded with a specific vision of creating a
“resilient” farm capable of supplying 200 ‘member’ families through a form of Community
Supported Agriculture, providing them agency over their food supply and offering stability to
farm income. Financial concerns were “massive” and encouraging footfall to support the
farm’s on-site income streams was important. Peak oil was “very much a driver”, prompting
concern for reducing dependency on fossil fuels. Farmer C stood out in saying financial
survival was overwhelmingly the principal driver, and fulfilling the niche market of organic
grain which had enabled survival while, secondarily, minimising the farm’s “environmental
footprint” was a strong desire.
Financial viability depends on sufficient custom, making markets a potential driver of farm
decision-making. Participants were asked to what extent they felt independence over
decisions about produce and practice by the need to serve their markets.
Farm A sold livestock to abattoirs or other farms, meat online and animals to livestock
markets when premiums for organic produce were not available. But Farmer A said: “In our
case we are pretty much taking those decisions almost in spite of the market.” Decisions were
made with longer-term resilience in mind, which was rarely synergistic with profit
Farm B took online orders and used local advertising, selling meat boxes and delivering to
individual customers. Farmer B felt he entirely determined product and process choices. He
also took a longer term view, having founded a local food market in order to build habits and
networks around local direct sales to provide resilience in a future where longer-distance
markets become more problematic.
Farmer C said he felt constrained in his choices by the risk that customers would be unable to
pay their bills, often thanks to lack of available credit. He had moved from horticulture and
potato production into organic arable for this reason. The nature of his markets (a major
supermarket and a local craft mill) did produce some binds: he questioned the cost and
necessity of using energy to dry grain, but “the trade” took the opposite view.
Practitioner D said control and involvement (for the member families) were fundamental
drivers of the farm’s model of direct sales to members: the food chain was to be brought
within the agency of consumer and producer: this was its “ultimate product”. Farm D avoided
selling produce wholesale because it would mean a small number of large customers with de
facto control of product and practice decisions. Produce was sold through farm boxes
delivered locally and to London, and sold to a local pub bought by the farm itself.
Participants were asked about connections to professional or issue networks to provide a
picture of contexts which might be drivers of their views and decisions.
Farmer A had associations with the Soil Association, the Country Landowners Association
(CLA), a local renewable energy co-operative and two recently founded organisations: the
Pasture-fed Livestock Association, described as partly concerned with low-carbon farming;
and the Barbet’s Duet, which shares best practice and explores how markets might support
environmentally friendly land management and ecosystem services. He had left the National
Farmers Union (NFU) because it “still represents the big agri-industry” and was “in a world
of denial” about the dying of the paradigm which supported that model.
Farmer B was a member of Organic Farmers and Growers (OFG). He felt the NFU promoted
“traditional farming methods which we don’t follow”, and could not “see ourselves supported
by them”.
Farmer C received support on tenancy issues from the Tenant Farmers Association, having
had a difficult relationship with his landlord. He was involved in a marketing co-op through
which he supplied his customers. Organic Arable included a supportive producer club, and
fellow local tenant farmers shared problem-solving and, to reduce costs, machinery. He
received his organic licence from OFG. He decided against NFU membership because of the
cost of subscription, but felt it and organic organisations should co-operate to achieve a more
effective lobbying voice, expressing irritation at feuding between organic and non-organic
Practitioner D said Farmer D was actively engaged in sector networks because he sought to
disseminate a replicable model of sustainable farming. He engaged with the agroecologicallyoriented
Campaign for Real Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain to develop alliances.
He was a member of the NFU and CLA; coming from a farming background, Farmer D
desired a strong NFU supportive of entrepreneurial farmers.
All four participants were involved in local Transition Town groups, Farmer B having cofounded
his in order to establish supportive local networks of those sharing his perception of
future needs.
Strategies and practices
Participants were asked for their views on peak oil and ramifications for farming, and how
these had informed any decisions about products or practices.
Farmer A foresaw volatility in the price of farming inputs including diesel, energy and
particularly fertiliser. His prescription was to farm in accordance with environmental
conditions and resources – which often meant accepting lower productivity. His aspiration
was to be independent of fuel and bought-in feed, so he was attempting to adapt his pasture to
provide better nutrition for livestock. He had abandoned cereal production because of harvest
uncertainties and the gas consumed in drying and because of future difficulties foreseen in
accessing distant markets, given the prospect of high transport costs. Distance from major
markets for current produce remained a concern. Other responses to peak oil included nut
plantations: a use for marginal land but also a potential cereal substitute and source of both
bio- and income diversity. Solar PV and solar water heating had been installed; Farmer A saw
a significant future for farming in energy generation.
Farmer B believed total oil production, including unconventional sources, would peak within
two years. Farming’s position would be protected by government through cheap diesel,
among other means, but wider societal effects would be severe and mean the end of economic
growth. In anticipation, Farm B was using no fossil fuels at all, instead generating biodiesel
on-farm from bought-in waste vegetable oil for delivery vehicles and employing wind, solar
and biomass energy for on-farm use. A borehole was dug, because of fears for mains water
supply in the event of future grid outages. He envisaged devoting an area of the farm to
energy crops for on-farm needs. He consciously shunned high-tech equipment in favour of
older, more easily repairable and therefore resilient machinery. Livestock breeds were chosen
which sacrificed productivity as they matured more slowly, but which were hardier against
weather and pests and thrived on grass, cutting feed, veterinary and wastage costs. Farmer B
was seeking deep-rooted, drought- and flood-resistant grasses for pasture which would not
require inorganic fertiliser or re-seeding. Organic pasture had also meant sacrificing
productivity, but he felt careful management could raise it.
Farmer C gained his understanding of peak oil through the Transition Towns movement and
believed that “the issues will be sorted out by the market”. In the short- to medium-term,
because of the primacy of financial survival, this would not necessarily favour lower-input,
organic, agroecological methods: he planned to convert from organic to conventional arable
because he would make more profit, which was “regrettable and unfortunate”, but also to be
able to use no-till methods which reduced pesticide use. In the long-term he envisaged a farm
of his type would feature higher efficiency, a proportion dedicated to energy crops and smallscale
AD. He felt confident in his ability to adapt to circumstances quickly, being a one-man
operation, while “a mega hyper farm with huge tractors which gobble up thousands of litres of
diesel a day will find it hard to react, except by throwing money at the problem”. In practice,
adapting a farm to peak oil would require lower fuel use through no-till practices;
undersowing of crops (two crops growing together); and fuel efficiency developments in
tractors. He had made only one change to reduce energy costs: he would end tilling in the
coming autumn. On renewables installation, he was restricted by being a tenant farmer, which
gave “little room for manoeuvre”.
Practitioner D foresaw an “explosion in the oil price”, which demanded reduced dependency
on fertiliser, pesticides and diesel. If oil was scarce or continued its price climb, neighbouring
farms spending “£500 every day to fill a tractor” would struggle, while Farm D would
manage with a little extra labour. Practitioner D felt there was no simple prescription to peak
oil resilience in terms of straightforward changes in practice because the farming sector and
model needed thorough restructuring, given its all-pervasive dependence on oil. Resiliently
and sustainably productive farming would be modelled on and resourced by nature: low
inorganic inputs; integration of diverse elements; productive in terms of biomass. For this
reason Farm D was polycultural, allowing productive integration as with chickens kept for
fertilising and pest control in the orchard and cattle manure for vegetable fertiliser. Imported
feed remained a cost and dependency, vulnerable to commodity market fluctuation and
dependent on long supply chains. Vehicles remained a high energy user, marginally addressed
by combining deliveries and trips and use of drop-off points for customers. Aspirations
included electric or high-efficiency vehicles, efficient chillers and renewable energy.
It is notable that all pursued diversification within their business models. Farm A had on-site
residential educational facilities, deemed financially essential. Processing pork products for
sale was marginal, but important in retaining community links. Farm B processed and sold
sheepskins, useful primarily as a gateway to selling meat products, and received small fees for
a monthly open day for eco-friendly homes. Farm C added a small amount of value by
cleaning grain. Diversification was central to Farm D, economically and as their raison d’etre
as community hub: a mechanic and vet were hosted on site, creating footfall for the entire
farm; there was an on-site butchery and café and plans for a bakery; people with learning
difficulties worked on-farm through a Care Farming scheme, attracting local authority
funding but, more importantly, again increasing footfall. Farmer D was, said Practitioner D,
wary of monoculture with its capital requirements, debt and inflexibility, having seen his
father struggle to survive after specialising.
As noted in Methodology, farmers acting on peak oil are atypical. Farms A and B, able and
willing to accept lower productivity in the longer-term interest, are still more so; and this
suggests a disconnect between the agroecological approach and UK and EU policy, which is
embracing ecological techniques but where the mantra remains greater productivity. Another
disconnect is the aspiration of Farms A, B and D to avoid direction by conventional market
signals recalling Dwyer (2011 p678)’s observation about ‘non-market ethics’. Farmer A
admitted many of his practices, such as shirking nitrogen fertiliser, were “contra-indicated by
the market”. This chimes with the Commission’s view that markets alone cannot catalyse
sustainability, but clashes with the UK and EU focus on efficiency and making farming
competitive for a liberalised global market. One, more logistical, disconnect is that the
participants were deeply concerned with vulnerabilities inherent in vehicle and machinery use
– a factor identified retrospectively by Wright’s Cuban participants as a leading difficulty
(Wright 2005 p268), but thus far it is not deeply addressed by energy and agriculture policy.
Research question 4
How do participants see the role of policy in supporting their farming model
and UK farming’s future needs in the context of peak oil?
Providing a degree of conceptual symmetry with questions 1 and 2, question 4 sought
practitioners’ views on policy’s effects on their farming approach, and on how policy could
support farming responses to peak oil.
On EU and UK policy, participants were asked whether they could identify any policy
instruments helpful to their mode of farming or to facilitating peak oil resilience. There were
few positive responses, but subsidies were, with caveats, generally thought welcome and
necessary. Single Farm Payments under the CAP were described as important to financial
viability for all four farms. Farmer A’s efforts to diversify his business was making the SFP
marginally less critical.
There were criticisms of the subsidy framework, however. Farmer B felt per acre subsidies
unduly benefited large farms and should feature caps or gradations to encourage smaller, less
“automated”, more peak oil-resilient farms. He felt ‘red diesel’ subsidy should be withdrawn
so full costs could disincentivise fuel-hungry mechanisation. (This was echoed by Practitioner
D, who felt externalities should be reflected in food price, such as nitrogen pollution or
supermarket lorries’ impact on road budgets.) Although the SFP was critical, Practitioner D
felt payments were insufficient: assets had had to be sold to establish Farm D. He also wanted
reform of per acre payments, which were counter-redistributive, and greater emphasis on
payment for land improvement.
Farmer C felt payment for organic entry level environmental stewardship was important
financially, but that payments should be raised, as the work was high-cost but added little
financial value. Payments were low enough to be counterproductive because those not taking
part to protect the environment were gaining competitive advantage.
Farmer A felt that criteria for higher level stewardship were too stringent, and compensation
for environmental work needed to be developed further: Farm A had sequestered 300 tonnes
of carbon but had no way to capitalise on this environmental service. Industry duties on
emissions reduction suggested ways agriculture might be paid for sequestration, but there
were insufficient links facilitated between these sectors.
There was also dissatisfaction over renewables incentives. Despite the FiT and RHI, farmers
A and B and Practitioner D cited cost barriers to installation. The pilot participant felt there
was insufficient support for small-scale AD, reflecting the critiques by Bywater (2011) and
CLA (2010). Farmer A, pessimistic about prospects for an effective public regime, was
exploring community and joint venture funding. Farmer B was benefiting from the FiT but
complained criteria unjustifiably favoured specific equipment and installation specifications,
ruling out other legitimate approaches. Planning rules had also proved a frustration, for
Farmer B, in installing wind turbines, with rules insisting they be located 50m from
hedgerows, creating obstacles in the middle of fields.
Farmer A and Practitioner D made similar points that planning law was not in line with the
needs of a working rural sector, but was, said Farmer A, “designed for an urban 20th Century
[…] it’s an appalling logjam”. Practitioner D explained: farm investment such as renewables
required significant capital which farming alone could not generate, but while a source of
capital might be build housing for sale, there were considerable presumptions against
development in the countryside. This was the main barrier to creating infrastructure which
would foster independence from fossil fuels: planning law actively discouraged
“infrastructure which supports livelihoods which support the land”.
There were other grievances about perceived over-regulation. Farmer C found standards
regimes, such as Environment Agency inspections and cross-compliance checks by the Rural
Development Agency, “very heavy-handed” and impacting disproportionately on smaller
farmers with fewer administrative resources. Practitioner D wanted reform of feed legislation
to allow greater leeway on sources of pig and chicken feed; restrictive legislation on this was
hindering Farm D’s ability to remove one of its principal fossil fuel dependencies. Farmer A
wanted a more enabling regulatory regime around compost toilets and human manure, freeing
up an oil-free resource and utilising the nutrient cycle.
Farmer C also had concerns about the effect of the independent (rather than state-run)
Assured Food Standards, mandatory for supplying produce to supermarkets, which, being
more about compliance than quality, he felt added no value to farmer or consumer despite the
certification cost.
This linked to other participants’ concerns about supply chain biases and market access.
Farmer B described a “stranglehold” by supermarkets over access to consumers, thanks to
their ubiquity and cost advantage. Selling directly to consumers through short supply chains
was necessary in the context of peak oil, but difficult thanks to supermarket competition and
because channels such as farm shops and farmers’ markets were niche and carried high
overheads. He wanted an obligation on supermarkets to devote 20% of floorspace to local
producers. Farmer A wanted policy to break up supermarket “hegemony” in a supply chain
which featured few buyers but many sellers and so was “skewed against the farmers”. Market
structures also, he felt, favoured farming intensification, antithetical to peak oil imperatives.
Practitioner D expressed similar views on supermarkets dominance.
Finally, participants were asked about how agricultural research and development policy
might support farming models such as theirs and better prepare UK farming for peak oil.
There was considerable consensus both on the direction R&D could usefully take and that
current research was failing to support the models they felt should be pursued.
Farmer A said research had focused on maximising productivity from inorganic inputs such
as nitrogen fertiliser, which had had benefits but faced scarcity and caused soil exhaustion;
research should instead focus on maximising nitrogen production from plants in the soil.
Farmer B was involved in a farmers’ group investigating appropriate plants and soil
conditions for organic farming but it received no support. How to improve the performance of
pre-war farming models without pesticides and fertilisers should be prioritised, he said.
Practitioner D said there was a “huge requirement” for research to support low-input, closedloop,
integrated, mixed farming, such as best practice in: natural pest management, mixing
chickens with orchard production, pig rotation, agroforestry for coppice and crops and
optimal cattle breeds for integrated systems. A new pig factory, he argued, could draw on a
wealth of research, but in Farm D’s model there were “endless questions about how to
manage it” but no support. Farmer C was reverting from organic to conventional arable for
this reason. He wanted to implement no-till practices but the organic industry had not
attracted sufficient funds for research into how this could be done organically; any trials were
by farmers shouldering the financial burden of experimenting themselves, with poor results.
Although farmers paid levies towards R&D through the Home Grown Cereals Authority,
none was going to organic research. Farmer A added that skills programmes were similarly
mistargeted: agricultural colleges were “training people to farm yesterday. […] We should be
training people about the world we face rather than the one we are used to.” Farmers B and D
each described relying largely on self-teaching and research, as well as drawing on other
farmers’ knowledge, in order to implement their chosen farming models: notable in the light
of Wright (2005 p4)’s warning of the importance of learning and support institutions in
making a transition to low-oil agriculture.
The salience and relative place of peak oil in the discourse considered here has been
determined by a number of elements. First, its sharing of the agenda with other pressing needs
and objectives – issue drivers – including climate change mitigation, economic health and
growth and ecosystem health. Simple synergies have frequently been claimed for these with
each other and with peak oil imperatives, but their inherent tensions, as in the case of firstgeneration
biofuels, and the need for more nuanced policies to attempt careful reconciliation
of them, have often become apparent.
Second, paradigmatic or ideological drivers appear to have limited the depth and explicitness
of the analysis: it has become impossible for policy discourse not to acknowledge and seek to
address the symptoms of peak oil, principally rising input costs and, so far less visibly,
potential supply challenges, but this has rarely publicly been couched in terms of a
comprehensive assessment of peak oil and more rarely still are its implications in the round
applied to UK farming. Analysis appears framed by a growth or capital paradigm which
prioritises preservation of the growth formerly made possible by ever-growing oil supply, an
objective which in turn has served to relegate, and limit analysis of, the implications for
transport and trade – the liberal market paradigm may be unable to conceive of abandoning
global trade as the lodestone of energy and food security, even as proposed substitutes are
evidently embryonic or inadequate to the task of replacing oil. This blind spot has perhaps
delayed full attention being paid to the vulnerability caused by food production’s oil and
transport dependence. Biofuels represented an attempt to make a substitution for oil, but have
so far been hindered by the competing policy imperatives, particularly food production and
climate change mitigation.
The notion of multifunctionality may embrace the necessity of balancing multiple drivers and
needs, but may also signal a turning to agricultural and natural resources to provide not just
food and energy, as the pre-oil countryside was capable of, but also the wider input needs of
an industrial growth economy. It appears that notions of the ‘bioeconomy’ may represent a
deepening and broadening of this idea of natural and agricultural resources as a commodity
and, as McMichael (2009a p825) wrote, the turning of natural processes into value relations to
serve capital’s need to accumulate. Agroecological techniques are therefore selectively
embraced for their potential to serve these input needs and satisfy some other issue drivers,
but in the round the ecology and capital paradigms remain unreconciled (some say
irreconcilable (Smaje & Rowlatt 2011 p13)) because integral or favoured elements of the
former (small-scale holdings often with polycultural, closed-loop systems, localised supply
chains, policies favouring direct access to consumers), selected for resilience, do not offer
opportunities for accumulation comparable to capital-intensive, trade-oriented monoculture.
Thus the participants in this study who pursued agroecological approaches tended to feel
unserved by, and sometimes determinedly outsiders to, institutional and policy thinking.
Research, knowledge and support services was generally felt to neglect, or work against, their
needs, and reacting to market signals – a shibboleth for UK and EU farming policy – was
sometimes regarded as counterproductive to their long-term objectives.
Reflections on the research and future directions for research
The chosen focus and methodology of the documentary sections of this report – the analysis
of how explicitly stated drivers link to policy direction – meant other deeply salient factors
and latent drivers were not examined more deeply than the making of inferences from textual
analysis of the discourse: for example, the institutional location of policy-making power, the
processes forming policy and the respective influence of actors and interests in those
processes and consequent ‘policy capture’ (CEO 2007). As Dwyer (2011 p4) notes, policy is
often conceived and influenced by societal and commercial stakeholders, or serving vested
interests (Hoffmann 2011). Political expediency (McMichael 2010; Charles et al. 2007) might
also be a latent driver not evident through textual analysis.
A more thorough examination of the commercial and institutional drivers of farming practice
as they impact on resilience to energy depletion would be illuminating. Some aspects where
addressed here, but not in a depth and breadth commensurate to their relevance. As Wright
(2005 p42) wrote, “agricultural systems are embedded in a complex network of institutions
that include marketing chains, insurance, land tenure and land development, water
management, financing, advice, learning and expertise development, legal structures, political
representation, and so on.” Similarly, Freibauer et al (2011 p102) illustrated a model setting
out the complexity of actors within the Agricultural Knowledge and Information System. For
logistical reasons, this dissertation could not have such a wide scope, but each suggests
fruitful future research problems and questions.
The chosen timescale for documentation was narrow, but deliberately so in order to provide
detail on the most recent developments as the issue moves rapidly up the agenda. A broader
chronological scope would provide different, useful insights – and particularly, perhaps, a
comparison of contemporary policy discourse with that of the 1970s, the last time oil scarcity
and energy supply issues were high on the agenda.
A regrettable but necessary exclusion from the study was that of local and devolved
government. The UK and EU were chosen as the highest, most all-encompassing polities with
responsibilities in energy and farming. However, local and devolved administrations’ powers
in areas such as business support, town and country planning, land use rules, energy and
infrastructure make a powerful case for future research into their engagement with peak oil
resilience in farming.
For data collection from farming practitioners there was a clear limitation to the study as
noted in Methodology, in that participants’ methods were weighted towards the
agroecological and organic, although Farmer C made a distinct case as one moving between
organic and conventional farming. As stated, the study was not intended to be statistically
representative but to illuminate the experiences, decision-making drivers, perceived needs,
and views on and relationship with policy, of those in what may constitute a farming
vanguard: those practising while cognisant of an issue to which farming as a whole will have
to formulate responses.
One issue emerging from the interviews was Farmer C’s feeling that he was restrained from
making desired changes in part by his status as a tenant farmer. We can speculate that, for
some in his place, restrictions may be applied as much by tenancy conditions as by the need
for regular, predictable income at a set level, contrasting with a relative leeway to risk
innovation and therefore uncertain income by those participants who owned the land they
farmed. This relates to Dwyer’s theory that land ownership models were salient to the
viability of farming informed by ‘non-market ethics’ (Dwyer 2011 p4) and seeking to avoid
dictation by market signals.
Two of the most recent policy developments suggest a need for further attention. First, the
government’s new localism bill (Pickles & Hanham 2011) is already controversial for its
loosening of planning rules around development in rural areas. The extent to which it
addresses the grievances of this study’s interviewees that their resilience efforts were stifled
by over-restrictive planning frameworks is a potentially fruitful research topic. Finally, the
emergent ‘bioeconomy’ strategy in EU policy suggests great research need and potential,
appearing, as it does, to be the most integrated attempt yet to utilise rural resources to serve
and reconcile the multifarious drivers, including energy, food, climate and economy, which
were so salient to this study.
Appendix: Interview schedule
? Participant’s position in farm / business
1. Thinking about the characteristics of your farm…
? What size is the farm?
? In what county is the farm?
? How would you describe the topography, geography, soil, etc?
? What type is the farm? [eg livestock, horticulture, arable, mixed]
? How would you describe the farm’s ownership and business type?
? When making decisions about your farming practices, products and business
strategies, what are the most important objectives, issues and factors which
influence your decisions?
? To what extent do you feel your farming practices, products and markets determined
by yourself or, for example, by contracts, buyers or other factors?
? What links do you have to food and farming organisations, networks, communities
and movements?
2. Now thinking about your understanding of peak oil…
? Can you describe your own understanding of peak oil?
? Can you describe your own understanding of peak oil’s…
a. Consequences for UK farming in general?
b. Consequences for your farm in particular?
? What would you consider the three top priorities in making a farming business better
able to thrive in the context of peak oil?
? Where have you obtained information on peak oil?
3. Now thinking about decisions you have made about your on-farm practices…
? Have you made decisions about what the farm produces in order to reduce its
exposure to the cost and availability of fossil fuels, or to capitalise on a commercial
opportunity created by high fossil fuel costs? If so, what are these decisions and why
did you choose these?
? Have you made decisions about how your farm operates in order to reduce,
eliminate or substitute fossil-fuel dependent inputs [such as petrol, fertiliser or
certain kinds of livestock feed]? If so, what were these decisions?
? Have you introduced any on-farm energy production, on what scale and for what
? Were new or additional knowledge, skills or labour needed by the farm in making the
changes you have, and how have those been obtained?
? Are there changes you have wished to make to your products or practices but could
not carry out? If so, what were they and what were the barriers you encountered?
? More widely, what do you consider the main barriers to a farm which might want to
make the kind of changes you have made or attempted?
? Do you have any other, future plans for your farm to respond to or anticipate the
effects of peak oil, and what potential barriers do you consider there to be to these?
4. Now thinking about how your farm’s business aspects…
? What are the markets for your produce?
? Is the farm partly supported by on-farm non-food activities?
o How important are these to the economic success of the farm?
? Is the farm partly supported by other food-related on-farm activities?
o How important are these to the economic success of the farm?
? Does the farm receive grants or subsidies?
o How important are grants or subsidies to the economic success of the farm?
? How confident are you – and why – in the future of your farm in the….
o Short-term?
o Long-term?
5. Now thinking about EU and UK government policy and how it affects you…
? Are there policies – such as regulations, tax rules, grants, planning provisions or any
other policies – which you have found helpful in developing and sustaining the kind
of farming you do?
? Are there policies which you have found to be unhelpful in developing and sustaining
your way of farming?
? Are there any changes you would like to make to your farm to make it more resilient
to the effects of peak oil but have not because of rules, regulations, taxes or other
? What policy changes would you like to see which you believe would support the
creation, adaptation or development of farming like yours?
? Are there any particular directions in research and development which you think
government should provide or support in order to help development of farms like
? Is there anything else you would like to say on the subjects we have talked about or
which you think is relevant?
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