Conflicting views on prospects for biofuels dominated the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday (5 January).

Lord Oxburgh, a former non-executive chairman of Anglo-Dutch petrochemicals giant Shell, stunned delegates when he said biofuels, manufactured from crops such as maize, were “scarcely worthwhile doing”.

“One hundred litres of woodchip is only equivalent to 10 litres of diesel in terms of energy density,” explained the peer.

Instead he predicts many countries will return to coal as a major source of energy as new technologies are developed that trap much of the carbon dioxide released during the burning of coal.

“The USA, India and China all have massive resources of coal and we are beginning to see the exploitation of this resource.”

Lord Oxburgh said the government should, instead, promote the extraction of ethanol from straw and municipal green waste.

This, he suggested, was a far more efficient and worthwhile method of production.

But his remarks were rebutted by Peter Kendall, NFU deputy president and a champion of biofuels.

According to Mr Kendall the technology necessary to fulfil Lord Oxburgh’s vision is not yet commercially available.

“The UK should look to use current technologies to deliver biofuels, not postpone their introduction until new technologies are developed that make more efficient use of the crop.

“The systems we want to use are already in place in America, Germany, France and Spain yet we find excuses not to do so in the UK.

If, in the future, the capability exists to use more of the crop, then we can incorporate this in to our existing systems and reap the extra benefits,” said Mr Kendall.

Graham Wynne, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds urged British farmers not to pin their hopes on biofuels.

“I fear British farmers see it as a ‘silver bullet’.

It will have an impact, but won’t change the face of farming,” he said.

andrew.watts@rbi.co.uk