Germany's Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection Steffi Lemke speaks at a joint press conference with Minister of Food and Agriculture Cem Ozdemir to present their outlook on a new alliance between agriculture and environmental policy during a congress organised by the Ministry for the Environment and Consumer Protection, in Berlin, Germany January 18, 2022. John MacDougall/Pool via REUTERS

Tank or plate – this discussion has flared up in the traffic light coalition since the beginning of the Ukraine war. Specifically, the question is to what extent it should still be possible to use biofuels in transport in view of the global food shortage. While Environment Minister Steffi Lemke and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir (both Green) want to gradually reduce the admixture of biodiesel and bioethanol from the coming year, Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP) considers their use to be indispensable for reasons of climate protection.

A spokesman for the department explained that the Ministry of the Environment is currently preparing to amend the rules for biofuels from food and feed crops. Lemke had already announced in May that the use of biofuel should be reduced. According to the minister’s plans, the addition of biofuels to diesel and petrol will be phased out completely by 2030.

According to government circles, the climate protection effect of biofuels from food and feed plants is “strongly in doubt”. A proposal from the Ministry of the Environment therefore aims to reduce the permissible upper limit for the admixture of biofuel from food and feed plants from 4.4 to 2.5 percent as early as 2023. According to the plans, the upper limit should drop to 2.3 percent in 2024.

However, the use of biofuels is currently necessary in order to achieve the climate targets in the transport sector. The Ministry of the Environment wants to compensate for the loss of biodiesel and ethanol in climate protection, among other things, by improving the subsidies for electricity for e-cars.

Özdemir also supports the Environment Minister’s plans. “Food belongs first and foremost on the plate, not in the tank,” said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture. According to her, around 14 percent of the agricultural area in Germany is currently used for the cultivation of energy crops – this corresponds to 2.3 million hectares. Of this, around 1.5 million hectares are used for biogas production and almost 0.8 million hectares for biofuel production. In Germany, the supply of food and feed is still secured. However, the use of acreage for energy crops “possibly reduces the export opportunities for grain and food to developing countries as part of humanitarian aid to combat hunger,” the spokeswoman said.

In view of the war in Ukraine, the food supply in regions such as the Horn of Africa, which are affected by famine, is still not secured. The first ship with 26,000 tons of corn left the Ukrainian port of Odessa earlier this week, mediated by the United Nations. However, this is a small order of magnitude compared to what so-called panamax cargo ships can transport at maximum. The loading capacity here is up to 90,000 tons.

However, Volker Wissing (FDP) has a completely different view of things. As Minister of Transport, he is responsible for ensuring that the transport sector achieves its climate goals. He recently told the “Agrarzeitung” that biofuels are an “established climate protection option in transport”. Wissing pointed out that the savings in greenhouse gases achieved in road traffic are currently mainly due to the use of biofuels, including fuels from cultivated biomass. “We cannot simply do without these climate protection options,” says Wissing.

The FDP minister received support from the SPD last month. Their parliamentary group published a position paper in which the use of biodiesel and bioethanol is advocated. “Biofuels make an important contribution to more climate protection in the transport sector,” says the paper.

The SPD parliamentary group therefore supports the development of advanced biofuels in order to avoid competition for land with food production. In addition, the area under cultivation for the production of biofuels and biogas should not be expanded. When it comes to biogas and biofuels, the SPD parliamentary group relies on the rapid use of residues from agricultural production, which are not only suitable for food production.

“Ending biofuels would be irresponsible from a climate and energy policy point of view,” said the managing director of the Association of the German Biofuel Industry (VDB), Elmar Baumann, to the Tagesspiegel. As long as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in road traffic cannot be achieved on a large scale via electromobility, biofuels will play a decisive role: “By the end of the decade, biofuels will make the most important contribution to reducing CO2 emissions in road traffic.”

Baumann also pointed out that reducing the use of biofuels would increase dependence on crude oil and diesel imports. “Since the federal government is trying to reduce imports from Russia anyway, oil companies would be forced to buy even larger quantities elsewhere on the world market given the currently high oil and fuel prices,” he said.

In addition, from an agricultural policy point of view, it makes sense to ensure that farmers have a demand for biofuels, said the VDB Managing Director. He recalled that the promotion of biofuels in the EU was started in order to make sensible use of structural surpluses in agriculture instead of competing with producers in the Global South with subsidized agricultural goods. The production of biodiesel in Germany provides a buffer that allows rapeseed oil to be diverted to food production. This compensated for the missing quantities of sunflower oil from Ukraine. “This mechanism has already taken effect,” said Baumann.