Crop-based biofuels still play a role in clean and affordable energy

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created many challenges globally. Among many conversations, food security was a key topic.

Supplies of corn, soybeans, wheat, and other foods were already in tight supply before the war in Europe, which kept prices elevated as the U.S. emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Russia’s attack on a major part of the world’s breadbasket created uncertainty about food supplies, sending global prices soaring.

Ukraine, a major producer of corn and wheat, could not ship grain from its ports in the Black Sea, a major transportation outlet for food exports. Since agriculture is global, U.S. prices reacted, increasing inflationary pressures on food prices.

Historically high prices of grain created a predicament for the cost of food, largely because production competes with fuel production, namely, biofuels.

Tight supplies amid uncertainty sparked a battle between food and fuel, drawing stark criticism toward the biofuel industry and modern agriculture. That brought up the question of if the U.S. and the world should be less dependent on corn for ethanol or soybeans and canola for biodiesel.

So far, the U.S. has shown no inclination to reduce crops in biofuels, albeit the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest biofuel blending mandate proposal wasn’t necessarily a win for the biofuels industry. However, other countries have questioned the role crops should play in decarbonizing the transportation sector.

It’s no secret that European countries have sought to move away from certain conventional agriculture practices. The announcement of the bloc’s Farm to Fork Strategy was a pivotal moment that highlighted its goal to drastically change how it plans to produce food.

In the latest edition of Europe’s plans to do away with practices that had made significant strides in producing food, fuel and fiber, Germany wants to reduce and eliminate crop-based biofuels.

German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke announced Germany’s plan to phase out biofuels produced from crops such as rapeseed (canola), grains and beets. The idea is not new, as Lemke first proposed in April that the government intended to restrict biofuel production.

Lemke’s recent speech at the 2023 BMUV (The Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety, and Consumer Protection) Agricultural Congress highlighted the government’s stance to engage in “far-reaching changes” for how the country produces its food and fuel.

“Plants belong on the plate, not in the tank when we consume them,” said Lemke on Tuesday.

Germany’s plan isn’t to do away with biofuels completely but rather increase investment in biofuels produced by waste, residual materials, and cooking oil. Global food giant Cargill expressed similar interest in creating alternative energy from second-generation biofuels using non-food feedstocks such as woody crops, agricultural residues or waste, or non-food crops grown on marginal land.

While it is important to diversify energy sources, the pitfall comes from Germany’s intention to do away with practices like genetic engineering that have helped advance Western civilization.

Germany can do what it thinks is best for its land and citizens. However, the ideas could likely culminate abroad and influence U.S. lawmakers if it hasn’t already. American voters have shown vast support for corn-based ethanol and its positive impact on consumers.

Additionally, crops processed for fuel are not only used for transportation. Rather, corn coproducts like dried distillers grains are used for animal feed, helping to utilize all the output and reduce waste. 

Coproducts are value-added inputs that help reduce feeding costs. And reducing cost-effective supplies increase the need for imports, which only shifts the burden of producing crop-based fuels and other products elsewhere. That seems to counter the idea of sustainability.

Crop-based biofuels could play a role in climate-friendly systems for some time, and it might not yet be time to phase out a tool that has provided cheaper and cleaner options at the pump.

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