Minister’s claims that solar panels harm UK food security are false

British food security is not being harmed by the spread of solar panels in the countryside as claimed by the UK's environment secretary, documents from her own department reveal.

Liz Truss told farmers last October that they would no longer receive agricultural subsidies for land that had solar power on, saying the “ugly” panels were “a blight on the countryside and villages” and were pushing production of meat and produce overseas.

“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,” she was quoted as saying at the time.

But environment department officials have admitted in private correspondence and documents released under freedom of information rules that they hold no data on the land covered in England by solar panels; they have no idea how much they will save in agricultural subsidies through the change; and the claim that solar power is harming food production does not stack up.

“Given the small areas of land covered currently, it is not possible to argue that, at the national level, there is yet a serious impact on agricultural output,” they write in a document outlining the evidence for the policy.

The documents reveal officials trying to guess how much farmland is affected by extrapolating from the total amount of solar installed across the country and the total amount of farmland nationally because detailed data for the crossover of solar and agricultural land does not exist.

They also show the National Farmers Union opposed the change, with the farming body saying it believed solar panels could coexist with agricultural activity such as livestock grazing and even some arable crops.

The officials speculate on how much farmers with solar panels are receiving by way of payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but admit “we have no hard evidence to back these figures up”.

Just two weeks before Truss made her announcement, one Defra official emailed colleagues saying they had no idea where to start looking for information on which large solar farms are also receiving agricultural payments. “Can either of you help with identifying some large scale solar farms in receipt of SPS subsidy? I don’t know where to begin with this!” the official wrote on 9 October 2014.

Submissions from solar power developers argued that solar farms complement rather than compete with agriculture.

“35GW of solar farms generating 10% of the UK’s electricity demand [nearly nine times the amount the UK has installed now] could be built on less than 1% of permanent pasture land without displacing any grazing sheep,” says a slide by British solar company AEE Renewables, now known as Green Hedge.

Truss’s rhetoric in October was in line with her focus on championing British food since taking office last summer in which she has praised English and Welsh wine exports and penned comment articles lauding British apples.

The sudden policy shift by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) added to the solar industry’s woes, coming just months after the Department of Energy and Climate Change had made drastic changes to the subsidy scheme for large solar farms. Sources in the solar industry said the Defra policy change appeared designed to woo Ukip voters.

Leonie Greene, a spokeswoman for the Solar Trade Association, said: “What we want is an evidence-based approach to policy. The impact of solar farms is negligible in terms of land take, many times smaller than golf courses. We’ve taken great care as an industry to avoid conflict with food production, and the co-existence of farming for grazing or poultry on low grade land is clear.”

Tess Sundelin, managing director at Green Hedge, told the Guardian: “These changes to CAP income are actually quite marginal for farmers. Our over-riding concern, given the significant income security and diversification that solar projects provide for the farming community, is the misconception amongst some policy makers about the land that solar farms cover.”

A Defra spokeswoman did not address the contradiction between Truss’s public statements and her officials in private, but said: “The government believes that the country’s highest quality land should be used for food and crop production. That is why we have taken the decision to remove Common Agricultural Policy payment from land used to generate energy through solar panels. This further protects our land, farmers and food security through redistributing payments to those farming the land and who are committed to agriculture.”

Adam Vaughan 

This article first appeared on the guardian

Edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie