Green groups call for EU suspension of crop-based biofuels

24 Mar 2022 | John McGarrity

A study cited by green industry lobby groups and released Thursday has said the EU’s reliance on crop-based biofuels is contributing to global food insecurity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of Black Sea ports — and warrants a complete halt to the use of edible feedstocks such as wheat, corn and vegetable oils.

The research was cited in a call by a coalition of environmental NGOs for national governments to suspend the blending of edible crops into biofuels, and for EU policymakers to avoid opening up set-aside land for the growth of crops in view of proposals by the European Commission on Wednesday to improve the bloc’s food security.

“The EU and other countries are using enormous amounts of food crops for biofuels. Cutting those feedstocks out of the EU’s biofuels mix would shield the EU from major supply shortages and would also ease pressure on the world market,” said the study, which was commissioned by Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment.

A reduction of wheat used in EU biofuels to zero would compensate for 21% of the total wheat exports of Ukraine and help avoid food insecurity in other countries depending on Ukrainian wheat supplies, the report said.

While for corn, the amount turned into biofuels in the EU is equivalent to nearly 60% of the volume imported from Ukraine, or nearly a third of Ukraine’s global exports.

“If the EU would instead use the 3.6 million mt of wheat [used for biofuels] to make bread, this would be equivalent to 76 billion 750g loaves of bread every year, or 15 million per day,” the study said, pointing out that high prices for agricultural commodities risked worsening poverty for low-income Europeans and a potential crisis of hunger in less developed countries.

If sunflower oil was to be omitted from the EU’s biodiesel market import dependency could be reduced by a third, the report said, adding that this outcome would free up nearly 9% of the sunflower oil supplied by Ukraine to the global market.

The study pointed out that the EU’s ability to switch from crop-based feedstocks to waste-based products as used cooking oil or ‘advanced’ materials such as farm and forest residues was also highly limited, while biomethane – touted earlier this month a potential replacement for imports of Russian natural gas – was also limited in terms of available crop-based feedstocks.

The report cited figures that biodiesel, oils derived from rapeseed, palm, soy, and sunflower crops make up 78% of total feedstocks in the EU.

For bioethanol, the role of crop-based feedstocks is even higher, the  report said, with corn, wheat, sugar-based crops (such as sugar beet), and other cereals (including barley and rye) accounting for 96% of feedstock consumption.

By press time on Thursday, biofuels lobby groups hadn’t responded formally to the study’s assertions, but some ethanol and biodiesel producers in the past have pointed out that much of the wheat and corn consumed in the EU is animal feed grade rather than for human consumption.

T&E over the years has been consistent in its opposition to the use of crop-based and standard waste-based feedstocks in road-based biofuels and is lobbying EU policymakers to rapidly phase out combustion engines in favour of battery-powered cars and trucks.  

The report came the day after The European Commission said it would support member states that suspend or relax binding biofuels blending mandates and bolster supplies of edible crops for food and feed markets in the wake of price spikes and fears of shortages in key commodities following Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The EU’s executive on Wednesday outlined a package of measures to bolster the bloc’s food security in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, such as turning over land to food production from areas that had been set aside for biodiversity.


“The Commission…supports Member States in using possibilities to reduce the blending proportion of biofuels - because this would also lead to a reduction of EU agricultural land that is used for production of biofuel feedstock - and instead direct it towards food production,” EU executive vice president Valdis Dombrovskis said in a speech on Wednesday.

Under the current version of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), all EU member states must have measures – typically mandates – in place that help meet the 27-nation bloc’s goal for renewable fuels to account for 14% of overall fuel consumption by 2030.

But many member states, particularly those in central and eastern Europe, are disproportionately reliant on crop-based feedstocks such as corn and wheat in ethanol and rapeseed and sunoil in biodiesel.

Member States

Some, such as the Czech Republic, have mooted suspending a binding biodiesel mandate while Croatia last week removed some of the penalties for not hitting blending thresholds. 

Brussels-based sources said they are aware of at least three other countries that might relax their mandates, but the identities of these couldn’t be confirmed at press time.

Pressure to water down or not enforce mandates in some of these countries seems to be driven mainly by political pressure to reduce fuel prices rather than food, biofuels lobbies point out.