Letters: Biofuel crops

No need for gloom if we pick the right biofuel crops


Sir: Your article "The big green fuel lie" is timely, but not complete. I have observed the huge sugar cane plantations in Brazil, and in my visits to sugar refineries I have noted the vast residues of the lignocellulosic bagasse (or "spent" sugar cane stalks after the sugar has been recovered). That bagasse can be an even richer source of ethanol, and better still butanol, and levulinic acid, an excellent platform chemical from which much can be synthesised that is now sourced in petrochemicals.

My invitations to Brazil have been to discuss how such lignocellulosic feedstocks can be processed to yield such products. I have discussed with Brazilians the felling of the rainforest, and some have suggested that it would be appropriate for the rest of the world to pay for its preservation.

I have discussed with them the need for conservation of soil carbon. Soil under long-term cultivation, whether to wheat, maize, or any other crop where cultivation is practised, loses carbon, and that carbon is no different from fossil carbon. Brazilian scientists have been receptive to growing perennial energy crops, such as elephant grass and bamboo, which increase soil carbon, and recycle vast amounts of CO2 (because they grow so rapidly). These lignocellulose crops are excellent feedstocks for biorefineries.

Thus, if the peripheries of the rainforest must be felled it will be far more appropriate to convert the lands to fast-growing lignocellulose biorefinery feedstocks than to the growing of sugar cane or maize, or soya beans (for which Amazonian soils are not suited; read Emma Marris, Nature, Vol. 442, pp 624-626, 2006; M H B Hayes, Nature 442, p.144, 2006). Utilisation of lignocellulose biorefinery feedstocks is regarded as second generation technology. The fact is that technology is available now.

There should be no need for a gloomy scenario if we realise that food crops should fuel life, and lignocellulose crops should fuel our transport and other energy needs. Miscanthus can substitute for elephant grass in our climes, and we have plenty of sub-marginal land to grow conifers, excellent sources of lignocellulose. And let us not forget that a biorefining industry can lead to sustainable indigenous industries.



Brighton strikes a blow for equality

Sir: We write in support of the decision of Brighton and Hove City Council to introduce a new system for schools admissions which combines fixed catchment areas with a lottery for oversubscribed schools. Together with the new government rules on schools admissions, this indicates a welcome shift towards an educational system based on equal opportunities for all, rather than the privileged few.

For anybody involved in the education system in contemporary Britain, the starting point has to be fairness. As academics, we often meet students who, for reasons of social deprivation and class prejudice, have not had the same opportunities as their peers.

In the case of Brighton, the opportunity to attend the "academically successful" schools, (measured in terms of GCSE results) has increasingly only been available to those children whose families live close to the schools. These areas included three of the wealthiest council wards. Areas of poverty in the city, including two wards which rank in the top 5 per cent of deprived areas in the country, had little or no access to these highest achieving schools.

The new system is not perfect but it shifts the social balance of these and other schools, and ensures that most children have a chance of attaining an equal education. If the council combines this system with a commitment to continued investment in less popular schools, then they will have gone some way towards improving social inclusion in the city.

Brighton and Hove City Council have taken a necessary decision which goes some way towards countering the injustices in educational provision. However the links between economic wealth and educational access continue to make a mockery of notions of social equality in Britain today, and much remains to be done before all children will have the same opportunities that are currently reserved for the wealthiest.



Sir: Paul Clark (Letters, 3 March) wants independent schools to be called "private". Private schools as a class already exist, and there is a world of difference between an independent school and a private one.

An independent school will belong to one or more of a number of regulatory bodies, such as HMC or IAPS. It will be an educational trust (or some other corporation), with a board of governors. The teaching staff will be graduates, and usually have a PGCE or other teaching qualification.

A private school, while accredited and inspected by the Department of Education (or whatever its current successor is), is owned and run as a private business, and can be sold on or closed at the whim of the proprietor, who need not be a qualified teacher; nor need the teaching staff be. Such schools also charge lower fees than an independent.

I have taught in both types of school. Both were small schools (no more than 150 pupils) and in both cases, children who I know would have sunk to the bottom of the heap in a large comprehensive (in which I have also taught) were given the attention they needed, and achieved far more. That, in my book, is giving "children a chance".



Sir: Paul Clark thinks that "each time a child is sent to a private (tax-subsidised) school, the state sector suffers" a loss of revenue. If all private schools were abolished, where does he think the billions of pounds would come from to educate those children in the state sector? Where would the buildings come from to educate them in? Taxes would have to rise substantially for all taxpayers, including Mr Clark. There may be arguments to be made against private education, but for every privately educated child, the state sector receives the benefit of its parents' taxes without the costs of educating the child.



Banks blamed for customers' errors

Sir: On 1 March, you published two letters regarding bank charges. One, by C Moorey, had a lengthy list of why it wasn't his fault and the other, by S Usher, defended those who ran their accounts without incurring charges.

Having worked for a major lender for five years fielding calls about mortgages and loans, I've seen it all. There are undoubtedly circumstances in which a charge or the amount of the charge is unjustified. There is also an increasing lack of appreciation by many as to their own financial circumstances.

Replacing C Moorey's phrase "it is not our fault" with the more adult "it is our responsibility", one gets a clearer picture. As someone old enough to have a loan, credit card, or bank account, it is your responsibility to plan for: the vagaries of cheque-clearing times; a direct debit due out on Saturday but not taken until Tuesday because it was a bank holiday weekend; and for upcoming annual payments. You should also be a little more understanding of the human on the end of the phone who is trying their best to rectify your error.

Increasingly, customers cannot answer the most basic of questions: how much is your payment, what day is it taken, what is your account number, what type of mortgage do you have, or how much did you borrow? Exceeding an overdraft means you have already spent money you don't have and are expecting more. Asking to skip your next couple of payments because you overspent at Christmas is irresponsible.

Excessive bank charges are not justifiable, but neither is having responsible customers pick up the tab for not-yet-grown-up behaviour.



Sir: My bank has a clever wheeze. If I transfer funds online from my savings account to my current account (both at the same bank) the transfer appears on my statement immediately. However, if I then try to spend that money on the same day I will go overdrawn and be liable to charges.



Ruinous cost of pomegranate seeds

Sir: I read with confusion the article by Janet Street-Porter, "Charles is cashing in on our food snobbery" (1 March), in which she comments that some supermarkets have raised the price of certain "superfoods" such as blueberries, pomegranate seeds and baby spinach. The article then refers to eight-year-old Connor McCreadie (who weighs 14 stone) and remarks: "No wonder Connor's mum has more or less given up the fight to get her son to eat anything other than crisps, chips or toast."

I am baffled as to how the high cost of a few items prevents a mother from giving her child a balanced diet. Food is more affordable and more plentiful than at any time in history. Information about nutrition and food preparation is more widespread. A balanced diet is within the means of everyone in this country.

There are families that don't eat a balanced diet. This can be for many reasons such as attitudes to personal health, lack of cooking ability, lack of time, limited exposure to a variety of food. It most certainly is not due to the price of pomegranate seeds.



A rare display of energy from the FO

Sir: As one who has spent over 20 years working if the realm of overseas assistance, and who has spent considerable time in troublespots such as southern Sudan, I must contrast the apparent energy and "high emotion" in the Foreign Office and British embassy over the Ethiopia kidnap to the torpid ineptitude which normally manifests itself when an "ordinary' citizen of this nation gets into trouble abroad.

The attitude I, and I am sure many others, have come across in the past is that if one is foolish enough to go into areas where there is known to be trouble then it is your own fault if something untoward should occur. Should the Government have to organise an evacuation, say, of British citizens from a troublespot you can be damned sure the evacuees will be billed for it at the end.

Whilst I have every wish that all possible is done to secure the safe return of these persons, I would ask that perhaps the British embassies and the FO should try to exercise such energy and concern for all citizens and not just those from their own ranks.



Single parents forced out to work

Sir: Two questions arise from the Government's plans to change the benefits system to force single parents into paid employment once their child reaches the age of 12.

First, will parents be allowed some flexibility in the choice of working hours? Or will single parents be faced with the choice of accepting whatever job is available, regardless of what the working hours are, or risk losing benefits? If the latter, one trusts the Government is prepared for the increase in the number of latchkey children and the associated social problems and risks of neglect - particularly in relation to the level of educational support the Government is requiring all parents to undertake to achieve their school production line targets.

Second, does the Government and its ministers not understand that single parents already have a job? It's called bringing up and socialising the next generation and it includes, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, caring, counselling, and many other duties that are effectively unpaid.

MPs and ministers might like to try doing all this themselves whilst trying to hold down some form of employment at the same time. They may then learn, if they are capable of learning from real life, that the benefits that are being paid out are nowhere near the value the country is receiving from single parents.



Football gesture

Sir: I'm afraid that Ian Taylor (letter, 1 March) is an apologist for uncivilised behaviour. If you make a gesture that looks like a Nazi salute, then you have to take responsibility when people misinterpret what you are doing and get upset. To make such a gesture in the middle of a packed football stadium in Tel Aviv simply beggars belief.



Lesson of Zeebrugge

Sir: Many of us remember all too clearly exactly where we were on that awful Friday: the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, on 6 March 1987, exactly 20 years ago. I recall my sense of numbness when P&O was acquitted of responsibility. If ever there was a prompt for a proper law of corporate manslaughter, this is it. The alternative is that the lives forfeited that evening, together with those on the Estonia , a few years later, will have suffered in vain. Unbridled free enterprise is a very mixed blessing.



Eurovision mystery

Sir: Surely the question is not whether a particular entry from Israel can be allowed ("Anti-Palestinian song faces ban from Eurovision", 2 March) but why is Israel entered for a European competition at all. Perhaps someone can explain why Israelis fight so vigorously for that particular part of the Middle East but then want to be seen to be part of Europe. Isn't it possible that Israel might have better relationships with its neighbours if it accepted that it is not a European country?



Model Blairite

Sir: Jack Ryder's 5-Minute Interview on 3 March disturbed me greatly. Is this perhaps an even more worrying part of "Blair's legacy" than Iraq? What education system can produce a 25-year-old man who "could not pinpoint what the problem was in the whole Stephen Lawrence thing" or thinks that "you just have to put your faith in the Government and believe they are doing the best for the people". Doubtless Mr Blair and his government would delight in this attitude. Anybody who believes in critical thought must despair.



Lotteries for all

Sir: The best way out for the NHS junior doctor placement problem is to follow the example of Brighton schools authority: allocate doctors by a lottery.



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