Food-Based Biofuels Face Scrutiny as War in Ukraine Cuts Grain Supply

mykolaiv terminal attack
Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports and its attacks on Ukraine's grain storage - like this silo complex and loading terminal at Mykolaiv, above - have reduced the supply of wheat (file image)

Published Jul 15, 2022 8:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

As shipping pursues decarbonization goals, carriers are increasingly adopting biofuels as a clean alternative to fossil fuels. MSC, CMA CGM and Hapag Lloyd are among the carriers that have recently launched initiatives to expand their use of biofuels.

However, calls are growing - especially in Europe - for governments to put a moratorium on use of biofuels until the world averts hunger crisis. Following the blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia, some developing nations are now facing the threat of starvation owing to limited grain supplies.

“To free up food supplies and put a downward pressure on global prices, Europe must alter its own behavior. Most immediately the EU must cease all use of biofuels originating from sources which can instead be used as food or feed,” asserts a report by a Europe based environmental campaign group, RePlanet.

The report estimates that about a fifth (20 percent) of total Ukraine wheat exports could be substituted by ending European wheat being diverted into production of biofuels.

For instance, approximately 3.3 million tons of wheat were used in 2020 as a feedstock in EU biofuels, while Ukraine’s 2020 global wheat exports were 16.4 million tons. For maize, the figures are 6.5 million tons used in EU biofuels, while 24 million tons were exported from Ukraine. Thus, the equivalent of 27 percent of Ukraine’s maize exports are being burned in the European transport network.

Biodiesel, an alternative fuel the shipping industry is considering, typically uses large quantities of palm oil and other edible oils as feedstock. With sunflower oil now facing a critical shortage due to the war in Ukraine, the use of biodiesel from edible oils has a direct and immediate impact on the developing world.

“Europe can and must beat Putin’s global food blackmail. Just as Europe must stop buying fossil fuels from the Kremlin by saving energy, so we must also do our bit to help avoid starvation in the global south by sparing food at home,” said Mark Lynas, the author of Replanet’s report and a veteran environmental campaigner.

By 2030, the EU aims to increase the share of renewable energy in transport to at least 14 percent, including a minimum share of 3.5 percent biofuels. EU countries are supposed to set out an obligation on fuel suppliers to achieve this target.

A report published last month by Trinomics and Aether on behalf of the European parliament recommended strict sustainability conditions and a progressive pathway in use of biofuels in transport industry.

“Sustainable biofuels will have a role to play in decarbonizing transport, especially aviation and shipping, but their quick ramp up will have limited scope as a viable option to make substantive contribution to the rapid phase out of fossil energy sources,” noted the report.