Food – Fuel, Competition or Synergy?

Parallel study to analyse opinions, agreements and differences in a long lasting debate

Introduction and main elements

The central question in the food-fuel debate is whether the use of biomass for biofuels is competing with food supply. This debate is of great influence on the current and future use of biofuels. In the food-fuel debate, the big issues of today come together: improving food supply, developing sustainable energy, CO2 reduction, preservation of biodiversity, improving welfare and using technological developments. The food-fuel debate is a coproduction of the business sector, NGOs, science and government.

Through five meetings , two questionnaires, a parallel study into the perspectives on the debate and meetings with the supervisory committee, the opinions, agreements and differences in this discussion have been collected. In their replies, both NGOs and businesses indicated that the debate was open and constructive and that there was more agreement than anticipated in advance.

This theme has been the subject of a political discussion for years now. In September, the European Parliament decided to apply a ceiling of 6% for first-generation biofuels and 2.5% for advanced biofuels in 2020. The negotiations in the European Council, which also has to make a decision about this dossier, are still under way. In the Netherlands, both the 2012 coalition agreement and the energy agreement of the SER (Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands) highlight the importance of the best possible use of biomass (cascading). In 2014, a joint vision on a sustainable fuel mix will be developed in the Netherlands, also as an elaboration on the energy agreement. Biomass forms a partial solution to the bigger energy questions. In the short term, there are no sustainable biofuel alternatives for maritime transport, air traffic and long-distance road transport, but in other areas sun and wind will play an important role, such as with regard to the energy supply for electric cars.

Three perspectives on the debate were identified during a series of interviews: (i) “Permanent faith in industry and technology” puts the emphasis on the positive aspects of biofuels to fight climate change, to create innovation and new opportunities for the agricultural sector. According to this perspective, a stable policy is required, enabling the industry to grow and develop increasingly sustainable biofuels. First-generation biofuels may already be sustainable, but they are also a necessary first step towards the continued development of biofuels. The second perspective is “Biofuels within preconditions”, which puts the emphasis on the wider sustainability context. With the right policy, biofuels form part of a sustainable energy supply. According to this perspective, policies may need adjusting in order to guarantee the sustainable and efficient use of land, for instance. (iii) “Food in the tank is irresponsible” is the most critical in terms of biofuels: biofuels have little to no effect in the fight against climate change, while first-generation biofuels do put additional pressure on land and vulnerable groups, and compete with food production. These three perspectives help to interpret the agreements and differences (detailed below).

In the problem analysis there is consensus that the use of biofuels can offer opportunities but also threats to food security. Biofuels are not inherently positive or negative related to food security. So the ultimate effect strongly depends on how biofuels are produced. In addition, food security is influenced by a number of other factors. Making a distinction between first and second-generation fuels is not enough; both can be sustainable and not sustainable.

The parties agree that biofuels should not be at the expense of food security. Stronger still, the ambition should be for biofuels to contribute to food security. Ultimately, the solution for the food issue lies in the global fight against food waste, in sustainable land use and higher agriculture productivity levels. Biofuels may contribute to this, but the contrary may also be true. The key question is: which crops and production methods make the most efficient and sustainable use of scarce land? More sustainably produced biofuels are still being developed. The policy should be aimed at the continued development of these fuels and the phasing out of less sustainably produced biofuels.

Transparency and certification are vital in order to guarantee the sustainable production of biofuels. The dialogue with suppliers of biomass should become more important. The biofuels market is a result of government policy and this policy should be adjusted as this market develops and intended and unintended effects become visible, partially on the instigation of NGOs and businesses. At the same time, the invasive and continuously changing government policy disrupts the market and it slows down the development of sustainable biofuel chains. There is a fear that the lack of a joint vision among the governments in the EU may result in sustainable, innovative production of biobased products and fuels will predominantly take place outside Europe.

Furthermore, the parties continue to disagree. This is due to inherent uncertainties, but also because of conflicting perspectives and interests. The disagreement relates to the need of first-generation fuels as condition for the development of more sustainable second-generation fuels, the climate effects of biofuels, the effect on food prices and food security and whether or not first-generation biofuels should be promoted at all as a precaution and due to the immense challenges in the agricultural sector. Although the consensus is that hunger is not primarily caused by biofuels, opinions differ about whether the food-fuel discussion is one of the relevant discussions or if it distracts from more important issues with regard to food supply.

Parties agree more about the following problem-solving approaches:

  • The parties involved agree on fighting waste of food, sustainable land use and higher agriculture productivity levels. The parties also largely agree on stimulating biofuels that result in improved agriculture practices, on a comprehensive approach to food, materials and energy production and on the need to invest in farmers, local biomass chains, the local community and the local market.
  • In addition, transparency regarding the biomass chain and effective supervision and control mechanisms is regarded as vital. One particular item that is deemed highly important is the safeguarding of local land rights through free prior and informed consent.
  • The cascade principle needs closer consideration and detailing for the various applications and their economic and social values. A level playing field in terms of requirements and encouragement is desirable. A level playing field for green chemicals in relation to biofuels is desirable, for instance by expanding the RED with materials and chemicals, or by including CO2 gains in the biochemical and biobased industry in the Renewable Energy Directive. A level playing field is also desirable in relation to other sources as fossil fuels, or other applications as food.

Below we give an overview of the widely shared analysis and problem-solving approaches, plus an overview of the main points of conflict.

Download full document: Food Fuel Debate.


Instituut Maatschappelijke Innovatie, press release, 2014-03.


Agentschap NL (Netherlands Enterprise Agency (
CSG Centre for Society and the Life Sciences (NL)
European Parliament
Instituut Maatschappelijke Innovatie (IMI)
Neste Oil
Oxfam Novib
Rathenau Instituut
Wereld Natuur Fonds (WNF) WWF


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