Drop the Crops

Drop the Crops

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from the Centre for Policy Studies has called for the government to phase out food crops in a bid to reform the UK’s ‘outdated’ biofuels mandate for road transport in order to bolster food security and help our environmental objectives.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

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 – including grain grown in the Ukrainian war zone.  The Green Alliance has calculated that if the UK ceased to use crop-based biofuels, 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, eating away at any emissions savings and contributing to environmental degradation overseas. There is also a knock-on effect on food security and food prices, which hits the poor hardest. Furthermore, the overall carbon benefits for many crops are highly questionable, once the full impact is taken into account.

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, such as that made from used cooking oil, 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.