Ending use of biofuels in UK petrol could feed 3.5 million people, says think tank

Huge areas of land growing crops to burn as biofuels could help feed hungry and slash supermarket prices, says Green Alliance

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Monday 27 June 2022 12:35 BST
<p>Standard E10 petrol is 90 per cent unleaded petrol and 10 per cent bioethanol from plants</p>

Standard E10 petrol is 90 per cent unleaded petrol and 10 per cent bioethanol from plants

Ending biofuel production and use in the UK would free up food for 3.5 million people and reduce UK food prices, a think tank says.

You may not realise it, but a fairly significant proportion of the petrol and diesel which British drivers put into their cars comes from biofuels – these include vegetable oils from plants such as oilseed rape, wheat and sugar beet, as well as waste cooking oils.

The UK biofuel industry has grown from almost nothing in 2005 to an industry supplying 293 million litres in 2020 – largely to the transport industry, according to government figures.

But the huge amount of land used to grow crops which go on to be burnt in combustion engines is now under scrutiny, with calls for farmers to return focus to food production instead.

Plant biomass production uses nearly three-quarters as much land as the entire UK potato industry and is a “strong factor” in rising food prices in the UK due to increased competition for land, a new report by think tankGreen Alliance has warned.

Ending biofuel use in the UK would free up space to grow food for 3.5 million people and help bring down food prices for British consumers, it said.

Currently, the standard petrol available on UK forecourts is E10, which is a mixture containing 90 per cent regular unleaded petrol and 10 per cent bioethanol made from crops. Meanwhile, the standard diesel contains up to five per cent biodiesel.

Across Europe and the UK, rising demand for biofuels now means the equivalent of 19 million bottles of cooking oil are being used for road transport every day.

But by competing for land with food production the soaring demand for biofuels is causing food prices to rise in UK shops.

At a time when prices are skyrocketing for UK consumers and the Ukraine crisis means millions of people are facing starvation, Green Alliance has said it is “indefensible” to keep using biofuels.

Dustin Benton, policy director at Green Alliance said: “Using cereal crops to fuel cars hasn’t ever been good for the climate.

"At a time when Russia’s war threatens people in less developed countries with starvation, it’s indefensible to keep increasing biofuel use."

Biofuels have previously been touted as a solution to the climate crisis, but the analysis said their emission-cutting impact "has proven minimal, and in some cases, even worse than fossil fuels".

This is because burning biomass still produces greenhouse emissions in much the same way burning fossil fuels does. This is on top of the stored carbon released into the atmosphere when land is repurposed for biofuel production.

The authors of the study said their analysis also undermines arguments from farm lobbyists who have advocated scrapping long-awaited environmental reforms in order to focus on producing more food in response to the Ukraine crisis.

"This data suggests that ending biofuels is a solution that could relieve concerns over food shortages – freeing up food for millions – and protect these much-needed environmental reforms," the analysts said.

Mr Benton added: “Acting alone, the UK reducing its biofuel use could lower the impact of the war in Ukraine on global hunger by at least a quarter.

"If the UK acts alongside its international partners, halving crop-based biofuels could free up enough grain to offset all of Ukraine’s exports. Cutting back on biofuels is the fastest way of addressing global hunger in this crisis.”

Almuth Ernsting, co-director of campaign group BiofuelWatch said: "Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought the world to the brink of what a UN organisation calls an ‘unprecedented wave of global hunger and destitution’. It is greatly exacerbating an existing crisis brought about by already rising food prices, while escalating climate change causes ever more serious and frequent regional crop failures.

"Ending the use of food to make biofuels would immediately relieve food prices and protect millions from going without enough food. What we need are agricultural policies which strengthen resilience to climate change as well as to external food price shocks, and which prioritise growing food and protecting biodiversity, soils and freshwater.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in