Europe and the UK are pouring 17,000 tons – or about 19 million bottles – of cooking oil into vehicle fuel tanks every day, even though it is up to two-and-a-half times more expensive than before 2021, according to new analysis.
The equivalent of another 14 million bottles a day of palm and soy oil – mostly from Indonesia and South America – is also burned for fuel, the research says.
Vegetable oil prices are spiralling in large part due to the war in Ukraine, which is Europe’s largest supplier of rapeseed and the world’s largest source of sunflower oil.
But 58% of the rapeseed – and 9% of the sunflower oil – consumed in Europe between 2015 and 2019 was burned in cars and trucks, even though their climate impacts may be even worse than fossil fuels.
“Supermarkets have had to ration vegetable oils and prices are soaring,” said Maik Marahrens from the campaign group Transport & Environment, which carried out the research. “At the same time, we are burning thousands of tons of sunflower and rapeseed oil in our cars daily. In a time of scarcity we must prioritise food over fuel.”
Despite acute food insecurity running at record highs, about 10% of the world’s grains are still turned into biofuels, enough to feed 1.9 billion people for a year on some estimates.
If the land abroad used to grow the UK’s bioethanol were instead given over to food crops, an extra 3.5 million people a year could be fed, according to another study published by the Green Alliance on Monday. This would lower the impact of global undernourishment due to the war in Ukraine by 25-40%, the paper found.
And if the UK, US and EU halved their collective use of crop-based biofuels, Ukraine’s previous grain exports – which fed about 125 million people – could be wholly replaced, the paper concluded.
“At a time when Russia’s war threatens people in less developed countries with starvation, it’s indefensible to keep increasing biofuel use,” said Dustin Benton, the Green Alliance’s policy director. “Cutting back on biofuels is the fastest way of addressing global hunger in this crisis.”
Dozens of studies have linked biofuels mandates to rocketing food prices because fuel crops increase demand for land – and reduce its supply. Biofuels played “a major role” in the food crises of 2008 and 2011, according to Timothy Searchinger, the Princeton University scholar and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.
He told the Guardian: “The rapid growth in demand for grain and vegetable oil for biofuels made it impossible for farmers to keep up, and government mandates for yet more growth in the future meant that those who held stocks of grain demanded very high prices to sell them because they anticipated prices would remain high in the future.”
About 18% of the world’s vegetable oils – nearly all fit for human consumption – are used for biodiesel that is supposed to cut planet-heating greenhouse gases.
But experts say that their lifecycle emissions can be even worse than fossil fuels because they displace food crop cultivation on to previously unfarmed land – often by means of deforestation.
Global cropland is thought to have expanded by more than 100m hectares so far this century – an area around the size of Egypt – with about half that land coming from natural ecosystems, a hyper-acceleration of development compared with the previous 8,000 years.
“The cost of biofuels is greater than the benefit from any reduced use of oil,” Searchinger said. “The error Europe and others have made is that they ignore this cost entirely. They act as though using land were free. The food crisis we are in reminds us that is not true.”
To protect food security, the EU has already filleted the common agricultural policy, moving to allow crop production on fallow land and the derogation of crop rotation rules.
Ariel Brunner, policy chief of Birdlife Europe, said: “There is a staggering hypocrisy in going after the last scraps of nature protection in the name of food security while continuing to burn vast amounts of food grown over millions of hectares.”
A European Commission official said biofuels could reinforce food security and be a substitute for fossil fuels, while EU states would have Brussels’ support in using blended biofuel formulas that reduce the amount of land needed for feedstocks.
“The contribution of biofuels produced from food and feed crops towards decarbonisation is limited, so their use should be limited,” the official added.
The biofuels issue may be a flashpoint at a G7 heads of state summit on Sunday in Schloss Elmau, Germany, where the environment minister Steffi Lemke has already proposed limiting biofuels production to ease food shortages.
A German government spokesperson said biofuels were not on the official agenda for a ministerial food security conference on Friday aimed at laying the groundwork for Sunday’s summit. But they added that fuel crops “will probably be one important part of discussions in the context of food security”.
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A No 10 spokesperson said: “Putin’s actions in Ukraine are creating aftershocks across the world, driving up energy and food prices as millions of people are on the brink of famine.
“Only Putin can end this needless and futile war. But next week’s Commonwealth, G7 and Nato meetings will be a crucial opportunity for world leaders to come together to apply their combined weight to making life easier for households across the world. Nothing is off the table.”