Food and fuel: the biofuels industry works on its image

The food versus fuel debate has polarised opinion on the benefits of biofuels and led to a cap on first generation fuels produced from crops in Europe. But the problem has always been with farming practises and the destruction of forests in tropical countries that export agricultural commodities to the EU. Now the industry is tackling these issues by cracking down on unsustainably produced crops, reducing the competition with food and even coproducing new low carbon food products.

The sustainability of biofuels from crops as a low carbon replacement for fossil fuels, has been a point of argument for over ten years.  In tropical areas, land clearance to make way for palm oil plantations or sugarcane production has been blamed on biofuels. In contrast, the economics of food commodities in Europe has left farmers looking for other outlets for their crops, such as bio-based chemicals and biofuels, to make a living. The food system also needs to be decarbonised with high quality vegetable derived protein replacing carbon intensive meat. It was notable that food companies, were represented at COP27 for the first time. A local sustainable source of animal feed is also beneficial.

Recent developments have highlighted how the European biofuels industry is trying to present a different image. Pannonia recently showcased its transformation into a food and fuel company. At one of the largest bioethanol plants in Europe, it uses locally produced cereals to also produce protein, starch, fibre and other products for human consumption. In a similar vein, Enough, formerly known as 3F BIO, recently completed a new plant to produce vegan mycoproteins from crops in the Netherlands. Production will start in December and the facility has a capacity of 10,000 tonnes pa of this meat substitute.  Production will be integrated with bioethanol at the neighbouring plant owned by Cargill. 

Biorefineries, like the two examples described above, produce a range of fuels, feed, food ingredients and materials. They can bring technology and jobs to farming areas. Skilled people are needed to run the facilities and testing laboratories, offering opportunities in rural locations which young people are currently leaving to find jobs in cities. Operators are increasingly publicising both the social and climate benefits of these facilities.

Liquid fuels will be needed for aviation and heavy goods transport for many years. There is scope to generate liquid and gaseous biofuels from land without affecting food production on the same plot. The latest revision of the EU Renewable Energy Directive recognises that intermediate crops grown between harvests of the main food crop can produce sustainable bioenergy. Crops produced from degraded land, or by improved farming practices, so called low ILUC (indirect land use change) risk crops, do not harm food production. The presence of low ILUC certified materials on the market will improve the image of all sustainably produced biofuels.

Europe’s politicians prefer to focus on biogenic wastes and residues as raw materials as they do not take land away from food production. But wastes are not available in sufficient quantities to supply future demand. They also require more expensive processing. So, there will be an ongoing demand for first generation biofuels.

Much of the harm to biofuels’ reputation has been caused by palm oil. It has been responsible for damage to the tropical forests of SE Asia and the reputation of all biofuels, including those produced sustainably in areas with spare land. Europe has recognised the problem and the upcoming anti-deforestation regulation will strengthen controls on palm oil and its products imported into Europe. However, it remains the most sought-after vegetable oil for food, chemicals and personal care products. Increasingly food and chemicals producers are gaining sustainability certification for their palm oil, with Switzerland, writing the need for sustainability certification into a recent trade agreement. With the effective banning of unsustainable palm oil imports, biofuels producers should have more space to promote the benefits of the bioeconomy.

The need to move away from fossil fuels and petrochemicals has been given extra impetus by the war in Ukraine, which has resulted in supply problems for both food and fuel. Biofuels coproduced with feed and food increase regional independence. With ongoing robust oversight from certification schemes, biofuels and biomaterials can play an increasing role in rejuvenating rural communities whilst contributing to the fight against climate change.

Published: 5 December 22

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