2015 Rapeseed Flowering
Huge raw material potential will also ensure supply to plates, feed troughs and fuel tanks in the future
Berlin, 20 April 2015 – It’s that time. At the moment, there are 1.3 million hectares of rapeseed flowering across Germany in all their yellow splendour. Over the past 25 years, it has established itself as the most important native oil and protein producing crop for feeding both humans and animals as well as its very special role as a raw material for the production of biofuels. And rapeseed has also found its way into the politics of Europe, with far-reaching decisions on energy policy on the agenda alongside the big questions of the economic crisis, such as the policy on Greece, over recent weeks and months. And it is precisely on the topic of biofuels that the question “to be or not to be” is currently being posed about a whole sector. After years of biofuels being given political support with a view to the reduction in greenhouse gases, the threat has recently emerged that the tap for biodiesel and bio-ethanol may be turned off. In fact, the plan was that renewable energies and above all biofuels should replace at least 10 per cent of fossil energy by 2020. But precisely this well-meaning goal has brought critics to the fore who blame biofuels for very different problems, such as land grab, hunger, rising food costs and direct and indirect changes to land use, such as the clearing of virgin forest, for example.
All the points raised by critics are based on the same common assumption that the use of crops to produce biofuels is in strong competition with their use as foodstuffs. Their mantra is: what goes into the fuel tank can’t fill you up. It sounds simple, and it has unnerved politicians. And this is in spite of the fact that there are even more good reasons for promoting biofuels these days in addition to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Because, given the threatening situation in Eastern Europe and in the Near and Middle East, we need to make ourselves less dependent on crude oil and natural gas from these regions. So the question is: does the competition described above exist? Or to put the question another way: is there enough arable land or sufficient potential sources of biofuel to ensure that there will not be any competition? The short answer to that question is yes. However, we must explore the question a little further to give a more detailed explanation.
In 2014, the huge amount of 2.46 billion tonnes of grain (incl. rice) was harvested. In the same period, there were stocks of 431 million tonnes. And that despite the use of grain for the production of ethanol. The situation is similar for oilseed crops. Just 5 to 8 per cent of the world’s rapeseed, soya and sunflower harvests of 521 million tonnes were used for the production of biofuels. So theoretically there is no reason why there would be any need for additional land for the production of biofuels. Even if the requirements for grain and vegetable oil rose drastically, there would still be sufficient unused land for cultivation in Europe, Africa and South America. A number of studies have demonstrated this. In Eastern Europe alone, there are currently over 12 million hectares of unused land available. This is the equivalent of the total area of arable land in Germany.
Another horrifying figure, which at the same time offers enormous scope for potential, is the 1 billion tonnes of foods and raw foodstuffs that do not even reach our plates. These are the result of inefficient methods of harvesting, regionally high losses in storage caused by mould and pest infestation, and high losses in transport. In Germany alone, approx 11 million tonnes of food are “disposed of” as waste each year – this is the equivalent of 4 to 5 million hectares of arable land.
There is therefore huge potential for the raw materials to produce biofuels. And yet we see rain forest clearance and hunger in the world. As nice as it might be to solve these problems by banning biofuels, it just would not happen. The real reasons for these are actually much more complex and cannot be solved in the short term. In many developing countries, there are governments in power who neglect the country’s needs, particularly those of the rural areas. In many of these regions, poverty and hunger are an almost inevitable consequence of corruption, wars, incompetent administrations and inadequate infrastructure. Biofuels could even be the means to stimulate new ideas for revenue in rural areas, including contributing to the local energy supply too. With new kinds of crops or new varieties developed by breeders that are adapted to local conditions, land that has not been cultivated to date in these countries could be brought into use.
Virgin forests in South America and South-East Asia are mainly cleared to provide grazing for cattle and land to cultivate oil and protein-producing crops, because the global demand for meat and for vegetable oil, for the chemical industry, for example, has risen enormously. In the EU, there are strict sustainability criteria for using these raw materials to produce biofuels. However, these do not exist for other uses. When you consider how small a proportion of the harvest is processed for biofuels, it becomes clear that stopping the use of biofuels in Europe could in no way prevent the threat to the rain forests in other parts of the planet. However, it would result in an increase in the demand for crude oil. The search for new sources of fossil fuels is already being pushed forward with enormous amounts of investment. The cost of this will not decrease in the future. If just a small part of this investment could be directed to supporting projects for the sustainable, environmentally-friendly optimisation of plant production, the potential of agricultural raw materials could be increased still further. The German and the European policy makers could, at this point, show some vision and give more appropriate funding to research than has previously been the case. This would ultimately benefit all the markets – whether they are for our plates, our feed troughs or our fuel tanks.