Food vs. Fuel Again – Can a ban of biofuels solve the hunger crisis?

The war in the Ukraine threatens to curb global grain supplies world-wide. Especially poor countries in the Global South are threatened with a hunger crisis soon, partly because of a lack of supply and partly due to high prices that many will not be able to afford. In response to this crisis a debate in Germany has started about the best means to alleviate this shortage. The predominant argument coming forward is the proposal to stop using crops for energy use and thus increase the supply of food.

Steffi Lemke, the German minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection, and Svenja Schulze, the minister for Economic Cooperation and Development have both called for a global phase out of the use of food and feed crops in biofuel production. Not all parties of the German government agree. The liberal party FDP still sees an important role for biofuels. The Association of the German Biofuels Industry (VDB) also criticizes a phase out of crop-based biofuels, accusing the Ministry of basing their intended actions on incorrect data about the land devoted to biofuel production as the SPIEGEL reports on 2 June 2022.

The online magazine “die Debatte” took up this topic with insights from two scientists: Economist Prof. Gernot Klepper (Kiel Institute for the World Economy and Chairman of the Board of ISCC e.V.) agrees that feedstocks such as vegetable oils or sugars and grains are grown for fuel and food use, but also for the use as animal feed. In many cases, feedstocks for biofuel production are the by-product of the production of animal feed. The critique of the VDB on the allegation of the German ministers, that a large share of agricultural land is devoted to inputs for biofuel production, refers to exactly this misunderstanding. He argues that the supply of food should not only focus on the direct consumption of grains and oils versus their use for biofuels, but also the role of animal feed that dominates the use of agricultural products.

Professor Walter Leitner, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion, is also critical about the benefit from banning conventional biofuels in order to improve food security. He sees biofuels already as “an essential component of future energy systems”. Moving from first generation biofuels with dedicated crops towards the use of by-products and bio-based waste would free some agricultural land for the production of food. However, this would not offer a short-term solution to the emerging food crisis.

Both experts agree, that biofuels play an important part in climate mitigation strategies. Moving towards less land intensive inputs for biofuels, such as waste products, can in the long-run improve food security a little bit. Increasing the supply of food, however, could be reached much more effectively by increasing the share of vegetarian diets at the expense of meat consumption. This would increase the supply of the major food in poor countries and lower their prices.

ISCC is also contributing to this debate and, as an official partner of the Food Security Standard (FSS), has developed practical and measurable criteria for maintaining and improving food security in cooperation with the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the NGOs WWF and ZEF. These can be integrated into sustainability standards thus further reducing threats to food security and making certification processes for biofuels more socially sustainable.