Europe and the UK pour 17,000 tons – or about 19 million bottles – of cooking oil into vehicle fuel tanks every day, even though it’s up to two and a half times more expensive than it was before 2021, according to a new analysis.
The research says the equivalent of another 14 million bottles per day of palm and soy oil – mostly from Indonesia and South America – are also burned for fuel.
Vegetable oil prices are escalating largely due to the war in Ukraine, which is the largest supplier of rapeseed in Europe and the largest exporter of sunflower oil in the world.
But 58% of rapeseed – and 9% of sunflower oil – consumed in Europe between 2015 and 2019 was burned in cars and trucks, even though its climate impacts may be worse than that of fossil fuels.
“Supermarkets have had to ration vegetable oils and prices are going up,” said Mike Marahrens of the Transportation and Environment campaign group, which carried out the research. Meanwhile, we burn thousands of tons of sunflower and rapeseed oil in our cars every day. In a time of scarcity, we must prioritize food over fuel.”
Despite acute food insecurity at record levels, about 10% of the world’s grain is still being turned into biofuels, enough to feed 1.9 billion people for a year according to some estimates.
If land abroad were used to grow bioethanol in the UK instead, an additional 3.5 million people could be fed annually, according to another study published by the Green Alliance on Monday. The study found that this would reduce the impact of global undernourishment due to the war in Ukraine by 25-40%.
The paper concluded that if the UK, US and EU halved their collective use of crop-based biofuels, Ukraine’s former grain exports – which fed some 125 million people – could be completely replaced.
“At a time when the Russian war threatens people in less developed countries with starvation, continuing to use increased biofuels is untenable,” said Dustin Benton, director of policy for the Green Alliance. “Reducing biofuels is the fastest way to tackle global hunger in this crisis.”
Dozens of studies have linked biofuel mandates to skyrocketing food prices because fuel crops increase demand for land – and reduce its supply. Biofuels played a “key role” in the food crises of 2008 and 2011, according to Timothy Searchinger, a researcher at Princeton University and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.
He told the Guardian: “The rapid growth in demand for cereals and vegetable oils for biofuels has made it impossible for farmers to keep pace, and government mandates for further growth in the future mean that those with stocks of cereals are demanding very high prices to sell because they expected prices to remain high in the future.
About 18% of the world’s vegetable oils – almost all of them fit for human consumption – are used in biodiesel that is supposed to reduce the greenhouse gases that are heating the planet.
But experts say their life-cycle emissions could be worse than fossil fuels because they replace growing food crops on previously unarmed land – often through deforestation.
Global cropland is believed to have expanded by more than 100 million hectares so far this century – an area roughly the size of Egypt – with nearly half of this land coming from natural ecosystems, a significant acceleration in development compared to the past 8,000 years.
“The cost of biofuels is greater than the benefit from any reduced use of oil,” Searchinger said. The mistake Europe and others made was to ignore this cost entirely. They act as if the use of the land was free. The food crisis we are in is reminding us that this is not true.”
To protect food security, the EU has already compiled the Common Agricultural Policy, moving to allow crop production in wastelands and abolishing crop rotation rules.
“There is astonishing hypocrisy in going after nature’s last scraps in the name of food security while continuing to burn massive amounts of food grown over millions of hectares,” said Ariel Brunner, Head of Policy at Birdlife Europe.
A European Commission official said biofuels could enhance food security and be an alternative to fossil fuels, while EU countries would get Brussels support in using blended biofuel formulas that reduce the land area needed for feedstocks.
“The contribution of biofuels produced from food and feed crops to decarbonization is limited, so their use should be limited,” the official added.
The issue of biofuels may be a hot spot at the G7 heads of state summit on Sunday in Schloss Elmau, Germany, where Environment Minister Stevie Lemke has already proposed curbing biofuel production to ease food shortages.
A German government spokesman said biofuels were not on the official agenda for a food security ministerial conference on Friday aimed at preparing the way for Sunday’s summit. But they added that fuel crops “are likely to be an important part of discussions in the context of food security”.
Spokesperson No. 10 said: “Putin’s actions in Ukraine are creating repercussions around the world, driving up energy and food prices as millions of people are on the brink of starvation.
Only Putin can end this needless and pointless war. But next week’s Commonwealth, Group of Seven and NATO meetings will be a crucial opportunity for world leaders to come together to apply their common weight to make life easier for families around the world. Nothing is off the table.”