Land used for European biofuels could feed 120 million people daily

Published: 9th March 2023

Europe currently wastes land the size of Ireland on crops for biofuels which is an obstacle to tackling the climate crisis and food security, a new study shows. The study commissioned by T&E shows that this land could be used to feed 120 million people or, if given back to nature, could absorb twice as much CO2 as is supposedly saved by powering cars with biofuels. Using an area equivalent to just 2.5% of this land for solar panels would produce the same amount of energy.

Maik Marahrens, biofuels manager at T&E, said: “Biofuels are a failed experiment. To continue to burn food as fuel while the world is facing a growing global food crisis is borderline criminal. Countries like Germany and Belgium are discussing limiting food crop biofuels in response. The rest of Europe must follow suit.

Julie Bos, EU climate justice policy advisor at Oxfam, said: "The EU’s biofuel policy is a catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people who are struggling to find their next meal. Not only does it surrender vast swathes of cropland to fuel cars, but it also pushes food prices even higher. European countries must once and for all stop burning food for fuel.”

According to the research, land cultivated to grow crops for biofuels could be used to provide the calorie needs of at least 120 million people [1]. It would be more than enough to cover the 50 million people that the UN says are "in emergency or worse levels of acute food insecurity." With world fertiliser prices sky-high and the UN-brokered deal that allowed shipments of grain out of Ukraine in the balance, the organisations call on European governments to prioritise food over fuel.

This is made worse due to biofuels’ questionable climate benefits. Crop biofuels consumed in Europe require a total of 9.6 million hectares of land - an area larger than the island of Ireland (Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland) [2]. If this were returned to its natural state, it could absorb around 65 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere - nearly twice the officially reported net CO2 savings from biofuels replacing fossil fuels. 

Using the land for solar farms would also be far more efficient. You need 40 times more land to power a car using biofuels compared to an electric car powered by solar energy, the analysis shows. An area just 2.5% of the land currently dedicated to biofuels would be needed for solar to produce the same amount of energy, leaving the rest available for natural carbon sinks or growing food.

“Right now, we surrender vast swathes of land for crops that we simply burn in our cars. It’s a scandalous waste. This land could feed millions of people or, if given back to nature, provide carbon sinks rich in biodiversity. Crop biofuels are probably the dumbest thing ever promoted in the name of the climate,” said Maik Marahrens.

The EU has set itself targets to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity in its Nature Restoration Law. With biofuel feedstocks taking up a good chunk of Europe’s croplands, ending the use of land for biofuels could be an important step to achieving this goal.

Notes to editors

Read the joint Transport and Environment and Oxfam report, Biofuels: An obstacle to real climate solutions.

Oxfam and Transport and Environment spokespersons are available for comment. 

The EU institutions are currently negotiating the new law in trilogues. The organizations are calling for a full phase-out of crops from the EU’s biofuels mix.  

[1] If the land now fully dedicated to biofuels for consumption in Europe (5.3 Mha) would be used for growing wheat.

[2] This figure refers to the total area needed to grow the crops used for Europe’s biofuels consumption. A share of these crops is going into ‘co-products’, mainly animal feed. The following numbers given on food and carbon sequestration in this press release refer to the area allocated to biofuels, only (5.3Mha), excluding the area allocated to co-products (4.3Mha).

Contact information

Jade Tenwick | Senior EU Media Advisor | | mobile +32 473 56 22 60 | +32 484 81 22 94 (personal) 

Sam Hargreaves | T&E Media Lead | | mobile +32 488203016