Are solar farms really hitting British food production?

Environment secretary Liz Truss has cut solar farm's subsidies saying they harm food production, but most UK solar farms successfully produce food as well. Karl Mathiesen investigates.

The environment secretary Liz Truss has stripped farmers of subsidies for solar farms, saying they are a “blight” that was pushing food production overseas.

But the new minister has fundamentally misunderstood the way solar farms operate, according to the solar industry and farmers.

Truss revealed on Monday new rules on payments under the Common Agriculture Policy that will see agricultural subsidies removed from solar farms. She said: “I am committed to food production in this country and it makes my heart sink to see row upon row of solar panels where once there was a field of wheat or grassland for livestock to graze.”

Truss told the Mail on Sunday that 10,000 football pitches of panels were “in the pipeline”. She said solar farms were “ugly, a blight on the countryside, and villages are pushing production of meat and other traditional British produce overseas”.

But farmers who run solar farms said Truss’s justification for removing the subsidies was flawed. First, almost all solar farms in the UK continue to produce food. Second, solar farms provide farmers with a way to diversify their income – helping them to stay in business.

“It seems a shame that people aren’t becoming informed before they make judgments,” said Clive Sage, who has a 4.8MW solar farm on his property in West Dorset and continues to produce prime lamb from beneath the panels. “As times have moved on, as a small family farm, we’ve had to diversify to survive.”
He said this government had originally encouraged farmers to diversify their income streams through solar farming.

But Truss’s move showed that the government did not understand the issue. “It’s nonsense for anyone to say that you can’t use land for solar production and agricultural production. The sheep compliment the solar really well. For them to pull the rug out, I don’t really think this government understands the word sustainability.”

“It definitely helped us to survive,” says Andrew Hawkey of his 5MW solar farm in North Cornwall. Hawkey’s family have been farming his land for four generations. “We are committed farmers, we are Cornish farmers and we want to stay farming.” For the Hawkeys, there was never a choice between farming food and farming sun. His solar fields are also still used to produce lamb.

“There is virtually no loss [of production] at all. We could almost say we are farming double on the same land,” he said. Originally the land had seen a rotation between crops and pasture. The only change was that now the land was solely used for sheep grazing. He said the solar panels had offered an unexpected benefit as they provided shelter for animals during the winter months.

Farmer Edward Packe-Drury-Lowe’s property currently houses the largest solar farm in the UK at Wymeswold. The disused airfield was previously used for grazing sheep and cattle and growing oilseed rape. Packe-Drury-Lowe said the sheep remained an essential part of his farm.

He said there is anecdotal evidence from some farms that solar can actually provide a boost to the production of lamb because of the shelter provided by the panels. He says stopping crops that use pesticides also had an immediate effect. “If you look at the biodiversity, the bees, insect life, the gain is almost instant.” This boost has a knock-on benefit to all farmers in the area.

Former energy secretary, Chris Huhne, told Newsnight on Monday that Truss’s prioritisation of food production over energy made little sense. “We import our energy and we import our food, so frankly, saying that we should make less energy so that we don’t have to import apples seems to me to be nuts.”

Whether a net loss of food production occurs depends largely on what was being farmed before. This is governed by the government’s planning guidance, which already stipulates that land for solar farms should preference “previously developed land, and if a proposal does involve greenfield land, that it allows for continued agricultural use and/or encourages biodiversity improvements around arrays”.

Communities minister Kris Hopkins said planning provisions were already in place to ensure productive farmland remained unadulterated. “The guidance is clear that councils must protect good-quality farmland and consider the effective use of brownfield land.”

The solar trade association’s advice goes further, recommending highly productive crop land be avoided and only land graded 3b, 4 or 5 be developed for solar farms.

It appears that some farms, including Hawkey’s which was built before the guidance came in around 18 months ago, have been placed on higher grade agricultural land. But the Solar Trade Association (STA) says this no longer happens at any of the projects they manage.

Solar farms do limit what can be grown on the land. In some cases, sheep alone have replaced a rotation of sheep, cattle and crops. But it is unclear whether this reduces the overall productivity of low grade land. Conversely, there are examples, such as the 14 MW solar array at Marsh Farm, where a solar farm on previously unused land is now running livestock for the first time.

The solar industry, whose farms were consistently attacked by the Consevative MP and former climate minister Greg Barker, were incensed by another Tory minister coming out in opposition to solar farms. Leonie Greene, from the STA, said Truss’s comments were “damaging and incorrect”.

Greene said: “The land is still available for farming – the solar fixings only take up 5% of the land. This means plenty of room for continued agricultural practices such as sheep, geese or chicken farming. As far as farm payments are concerned, solar should really be treated in the same way as orchards or fields with trees, where animals continue to graze the land in between.”

Toddington Harper, from solar operators Belectric, said: “I think [Truss] has completely misunderstood the benefits. She’s said we are taking land out of food production, which we are not. What else would you expect from a [former] oil executive?”

Harper said all 10 of Belectric’s solar farms are still farmed for food and that the planning advice simply needed to be enforced. “She should be saying that every solar farm must continue agricultural use. It’s happening most of the time but if it happens all of the time time that would be marvellous.”

London Greens councillor Jenny Jones said Truss’s suggestion to the Mail on Sunday that orchards were being replaced by solar farms was “total nonsense”.

Jones said: “This misguided attack by the environmentsecretary deliberately ignores the fact that the planning system is already there to prevent unsightly and overly dominant solar farms or their deployment on high-quality productive agricultural land. Where they do go ahead on poorer grade soils, planning conditions should ensure that they boost biodiversity and revert back to their original use when appropriate.”

Karl Mathiesen 

This article first appeared on the Guardian 

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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