More than one-tenth of Scotland's agricultural land could be used to grow crops for fuel under a scheme launched yesterday by one of the leading utility companies.

The move is a bid to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

ScottishPower said it was seeking contracts with farmers to produce 250,000 tonnes of energy crops, which are fast growing cereals or willow coppice, to displace coal burned at its Cockenzie and Logannet power plants.

The utility already burns carbon-neutral biomass such as woodchips at coal-fired power plants as part of its renewable energy programme.

The move will use 12% of Scotland's farming land and has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union, which says Britain needs to move faster to catch up with the US, already producing "tens of million of tonnes" of energy crops.

The need to tackle global warming by moving away from carbon-based fuels such as oil and natural gas has led to a raft of government initiatives across Europe, requiring cars and trucks obtain 5% of fuel from crop-based sources such as bioethanol and biodiesel by 2010.

Europe produced 268 million tonnes of cereals last year, but only 3.5 million tonnes of this was used for bioethanol. The 2007 target is five million tonnes.

ScottishPower said the move would have a minimal effect on land used for food crops.

Burning of the specially-produced plants will begin in 2009, and the company hopes by 2013 the crops will have replaced 5% of the coal it uses.

The company says the crops should provide a carbon neutral fuel. The carbon dioxide released when the crop is burned is equal to the carbon dioxide captured as the plant grows.

Frank Mitchell, generation director at ScottishPower, said: "This is a significant step in our renewable energy programme ultimately displacing 300,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year."

ScottishPower said it was already the UK's largest generator and developer and operator of on-shore wind energy and the latest initiative was another move toward reduced carbon emissions.

It also fits in with politi-cians' intentions to make the reduction of carbon emissions a priority.

The Nationalist administration plans to introduce a Climate Change Bill. As part of this, Scotland will take action to tackle global warming by cutting emissions by 80% by 2050. But there has already been warnings about the impact of a big shift to growing crops for energy.

According to the most comprehensive survey yet of energy crops, recently published by the United Nations, a global rush to switch from oil to energy derived from plants would drive deforestation, push small farmers off the land and lead to serious food shortages and increased poverty unless carefully managed.

However, the UN document compiled by all 30 of the world organisation's agencies, believes the production could help stabilise the price of oil and open up new markets but could lead to higher food prices The move to "agrofuels" is being led by the US, Brazil, Europe and China.

Last year more than one-third of the total US maize crop went to ethanol for fuel, a 48% increase on 2005. Brazil and China grew the crops on nearly 50 million acres. This area could double in 10 years, says the UN report on trends up to 2016.