Food or biofuels? The war in Ukraine is a dilemma that does not exist

The collapse of Ukrainian wheat and maize exports and speculation on grain prices, which have reached highs of more than 41% in the case of maize, are likely to trigger CAM a “food crisis of enormous proportions“. Especially in developing countries, which find themselves in a bind: on the one hand, less supplies from Ukraine, on the other hand higher prices on the world market.

However, every day, Europe transforms ten thousand tonnes of wheat, the equivalent of 15 million loaves of bread, into ethanol to produce biofuel for cars. A fundamental contradiction “ethically unacceptable”, pleads the NGO Transportation & Environment in a report on the biofuels landscape in the UK and EU countries. And without any particular environmental benefits, because zero-emission transport will only be possible with the full transition to electricity.

Instead, T&E denounces, industry lobbies, as ePure And European Biodiesel Council, are pushing to replace Russian oil with fuels made from crops such as wheat, corn, barley, sunflower and rapeseed oil and other vegetable oils. On the one hand, by aggravating the food crisis and on the other hand by contributing to the rise in the prices of agricultural raw materials.

How much and which biofuels are used in Europe

In fact, most of the biofuels used in the European Union come from food crops. 78% of biodiesel is made with oils derived from palm and soy, sunflower and canola seeds. The European Union and the United Kingdom do not have a significant production of palm oil and soya on their territory and import from other countries. In the case of sunflower and rapeseed oil, the harvests are there, but there is still a need for buy abroad: 22 percent of the total for rapeseed and 39 percent for sunflower. And many imports come from Ukraine.

To produce biodiesel, there would also be used cooking oils: here too, imports have increased steadily, reaching more than half of requirements. And that’s not good news, because it often lacks proper control, as he explains. Andrea Poggiomobility manager for Legambiente, and poor quality palm and coconut oils arrive from China.

For what concern bioethanol, nearly all of it comes from grains, especially corn and wheat, and crops such as sugar beets. The European Union imports 22% of maize for domestic consumption, while for wheat it is limited to 5% and part is also destined for biofuels. In the United States, more than 130 million tons of corn are used in 2021 to produce biofuels. More than the total harvest of Ukraine and Russia combined and far beyond what it would take to feed the American population in terms of energy needs.

Read also: From Ukraine decree of support for agriculture. “But the environment is losing”

And in Italy?

At the end of 2020, almost all the biofuels used in Italy come from Palm oil: approximately 1 million tonnes to obtain 2.5 million tonnes of renewable fuels. The contribution of soy is also relevant. “So there is no direct ‘competition’ with the grain market – explains Poggio – but partly with the food market, given that palm oil is widely used in Asia, while soy and corn are among the main raw materials for animal feed all over the world. the world “.

Competition remains for land used for biofuel crops. From a report of Biomass Research Center, it appears that traditional agriculture has lost about 4 million hectares which, until 50 years earlier, were cultivated for food purposes. The situation has now improved, he argues Franco Cotanaone of the authors of the report and Professor of Industrial Technical Physics at the University of Perugia, through projects aimed at using marginal, non-irrigated and abandoned land by traditional agriculture and the use of second generation biofuelsfrom the ligno-cellulosic sector, for example, such as bioethanol from wood and agricultural residues.

“Some arid crops capable of generating oilseeds in case of water shortage have been selected – explains Cotana – also thanks to genetic improvement, such as thistle and the safflower. In Italy there are now more than 20,000 hectares cultivated with these crops, capable of producing up to 500 liters of oil per hectare and almost 14 tons / hectare of straw. They also attract the bees for the production of about 15 kg of honey per hectare and the presscake from the seeds is actually used in animal feed”, concludes the professor.

More biofuels means higher commodity prices and less land grown for food

The fact that few fields are used for non-food purposes in Europe and that there is no direct competition with the wheat market should not, however, obscure the problem, points out Andrea Poggio: “The market for biofuels is globalized and prices are reflected globally. Increase the purchase of merchandise agriculture contributes to raising prices or increasing production. And somewhere in the world if we import, there will be fields intended for the production of raw materials for biofuels”.

According to T&E estimates, around 5.1 and 8.9 million hectares are needed, or between 4 and 7.5% of the total cultivated land in the UK and EU, to produce a quantity of biofuel equal to that consumed. If, on the other hand, only 6.5% of gasoline, diesel and diesel imported from Russia were to be replaced by renewable fuels, the area of ​​land devoted to growing canola, corn and wheat for non- food should double. Up to 70% theoretically, if you want to completely eliminate imports and replace them with biofuels.

An obviously untenable scenario. It is no coincidence thatEuropean Union expressed the opposite, calling on Member States to ‘reduce the agricultural area used for the production of feedstock for biofuels and instead direct it towards food production’, as stated by the Vice-President of the European Commission Valdis Dombrovskis.

However, it is the European Union itself which sets the obligation to add to petrol and/or diesel (and now also to methane) a share of biofuels which goes from the current 10% to 17% by 2030, although more than half must be second-generation biofuels. “Such a large quantity risks creating other imbalances in the market – affirms Poggio – without solving the problem of land confiscated for food purposes”.

Read also: War in Ukraine: risks for the critical raw materials market

An ethical choice in favor of the poorest nations

The strategy of stabilizing world food prices and supplies following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on the other hand, according to T&E, goes from reduction in biofuel consumption. If the wheat was not used to produce them in Europe, more than 20% of the collapse of Ukrainian wheat supplies on the world market could be compensated. While corn processed into biofuel in the European Union would be enough to offset about a third of Ukraine’s corn exports.

More generally, reducing the percentage of biofuels from merchandise agriculture would have the effect of mitigate the impact of inflation on the agro-food sector, while of course contributing to food security in developing countries. For countries like Egypt, which import more than 60% of their grain, this would mean saving lives.

“Ensuring a stable energy supply to people and the economy must not come at the expense of food security or driving food price inflation out of control,” T&E reports. Simply put, producing biofuels for rich countries cannot become a more lucrative business than producing essential foods for poor countries and destroying natural habitats to replace them with monocultures for this purpose.

The limits of biofuels and impractical solutions

Focus on first generation biofuels such as biodiesel And bioethanol not even a good idea from a technical point of view. The gain for the world energy reserve, in fact, is almost insignificant. As the English teacher points out Mike Berners-Lee in the book No Planet B: “Sufficient wheat to meet a person’s caloric needs for a day can drive a small gas-powered car like my Citroën C1 just two miles down the road.”

Alternative options are also not sufficient to meet energy needs. “Biofuels derived from sustainable products such as waste and production residues represent a small portion,” reads the T&E report. Useless in fact if the objective is zero-emission mobility: “More than 5 million tonnes of oils would be needed for vehicles in circulation and in such quantities there would also be a significant ecological impact”, warns Poggio.

The same goes for biomethane: “It’s not the answer,” T&E says in the report. Half of the biogas produced in Europe comes from crops, in particular maize, which can be used for food purposes. If “advanced” biomethane, obtained from manure, sewage sludge and agricultural and forestry residues, offers a significant reduction in greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels: but the raw materials are limited and the overall effect is marginal both on the markets and on the environment.

According to T&E estimates, by 2030 it would be possible to replace around 8% of Europe’s demand for fossil gas, of which advanced biomethane would only cover between 6.2% and 9.5% of energy needs for transport. Too little for advanced biomethane to become a killer application in the energy sector.

Not to mention that manure production is linked to livestock farming, an unsustainable sector in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And if “the copses, which must be cultivated and cut every 30 years, are an enormous source of energy, about a third of the national needs in renewable energy, of which Italy exploits only 35% of the potential against 75% of the other European nations”, stresses Cotana, being unsustainable is precisely “the general forest management modelwith negative impacts on biodiversity and climate change”, objects T&E.

Read also: Soaring wheat prices? Only speculation, the war in Ukraine has nothing to do with it

Only the electric remains

Research is underway to obtain green hydrogen from agricultural by-products or lignocellulosic biomass through steam gasification“This is a technology that is gaining traction in Italy and Germany and promises to produce hydrogen from sustainable green woodchips for less than 3 euros per kilogram,” says Cotana. However, we are talking about estimates and future technological developments.

The only solution is therefore electric. “Biofuels can only be used in sectors where electrification is more difficult due to the long distances covered, such as aviation and naval trade, or certain industrial sectors”, explains Andrea Poggio, mobility manager of Legambiente. It is worth looking at all the sustainable solutions: for now, however, biofuels can only contribute a small fraction of the energy mix.

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