UK should accelerate reform of biofuels mandate to boost green credentials and food security, says new CPS report

  • Every time a motorist refuels their vehicle, they are paying for the UK’s biofuels mandate, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).
  • This is buried in the per litre cost at the pump, so public awareness is low, but 6% of the total fuel bill in fact pays for biofuels blended into petrol and diesel.
  • While the government has taken steps to increase the use of waste-based fuels, food crops such as corn and wheat still play a large role.
  • In the wake of the war in Ukraine and surge in food price inflation, the report challenges the notion that British farmers should be growing crops for fuel – or that Ukrainian farmers in a war zone should be growing grain to fill British petrol tanks at a time of acute global hunger.

A new report from the Centre for Policy Studies has called for the government to phase out food crops in a bid to reform the UK’s “outdated” biofuels mandate for road transport in order to bolster food security and help our environmental objectives.

‘Drop the Crops: Why the UK’s biofuels mandate needs reform’, by CPS Energy and Environment researcher Dillon Smith, argues that the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) needs a post-Brexit, post-Ukraine refresh.

When the RTFO was introduced in 2008, decarbonising fuel was seen as key to decarbonising road transport. Yet since then, zero-emissions vehicles have leapfrogged ahead – the UK is now phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030.

In 2022, despite the Russian invasion and global food security concerns, Ukraine was one of the top five countries supplying corn and other feedstocks for UK biofuels. Transport and Environment has calculated that in Europe 10,000 tonnes of wheat, the equivalent of 15 million loaves of bread, are turned into ethanol for use in cars every day and the Green Alliance has calculated that if the UK ceased to use crop-based bioethanol, it would provide enough surplus agricultural land to feed 3.5 million people every year.

Moreover, using up agricultural land to grow crops for biofuels means more land must be found for food elsewhere, contributing to environmental degradation overseas, and as a result the overall carbon benefits for many crops are highly questionable, once the full land use change is taken into account. There is also a knock-on effect on food security and food prices, which hits the poor hardest.

Although the government has discouraged the use of crops within the RTFO, they still play a large role, particularly in the UK’s bioethanol supply. The report recommends accelerating a move to waste-based biofuels over crop-based alternatives.

The report recommends:

  • The Government should phase out crops entirely from the RTFO as soon as practically possible. At a minimum this should be by 2030, but ideally sooner.
  • The UK should work with our allies and partners to come to a common consensus on winding down crop-based biofuels to boost global food security, particularly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • The UK must ensure robust verification and monitoring of waste-based feedstocks (in particular Used Cooking Oil) and should consider rigorous database tracking.
  • The UK should revisit the main RTFO targets in light of our proposed phase-down of crop-based biofuels.

Dillon Smith, CPS Energy and Environment Researcher and report author, said:

‘The UK government has taken steps to shift our biofuels away from crop feedstocks and towards waste, but we urge them to accelerate the process.

‘With concerns around food security and inflation, as well as the wider discussion of the sustainability of biomass energy, it is difficult to reconcile the use of crops, and land used to grow them, going to biofuels instead of food. Reforming the biofuels mandate and accelerating the move to waste-based fuels will be better for the environment and allow farmers to use their land for other purposes – whether that be food crops or other environmental measures.’

Martin Lines, UK Chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said:

‘This report provides a valuable critique of the RTFO and questions its suitability in reducing transport emissions without delivering unintended consequences at home and abroad. What’s clear throughout is the need for reform to ensure that agricultural land is used well to secure genuine climate benefits, build long term food security and deliver biodiversity gain. We welcome this important contribution to the debate.’



  • ‘Drop the Crops: Why the UK’s biofuels mandate needs reform’ is available to download here.
  • On Wednesday 26th April, the CPS is holding an in-person panel discussion to launch the paper, with panellists including Dustin Benton (Green Alliance), Howard Cox (Fairfuel), and Matthew Culley (NFU). To attend this Westminster based event, please contact Emma Revell on 07931 698246 and [email protected].
    Dillon Smith is the Energy and Environment Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • For further information, please contact Emma Revell on 07931 698246 and [email protected] or Josh Coupland on 07912 485655 and [email protected].
  • The Centre for Policy Studies is one of the oldest and most influential think tanks in Westminster. With a focus on taxation, economic growth, business, welfare, education, housing and green growth, its goal is to develop policies that widen enterprise, ownership and opportunity.

Date Added: Wednesday 26th April 2023