EU Biofuels - background

According to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), by 2020 10% of the European Union’s energy used in transport has to come from renewable sources – in reality and according to the National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) it is planned that it will mostly come from biofuels (around 8%) of which more than half from biodiesel.

Crops – fuel versus food

Most studies on the intentional or unintentional side-effects of biofuels focus on environment or social costs. Great deal of these concentrate on land use change or food prices (Summary briefing by FoEE). It is estimated that EU biofuel demand will cause food prices to rise by as much as 36 per cent for vegetable oils, 22 per cent for maize and 20 per cent for oilseeds by 2020, according to the EU Joint Research Centre. However, diverting growing crops for human consumption towards biocrops for bio(agro)fuels production has also significant and mostly underestimated further social and health consequences through reduced food quality, availability, accessibility and affordability – of deleterious nutrition effects such as (chronic) hunger, undernutrition (micronutrient deficiency), rise in chronic diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cardiovascular diseases (CVD), certain type of cancers, overweight and obesity, especially amongst the most vulnerable consumers in Europe and beyond.

Public health implications from biofuels

Biofuels and food insecurity:

  • farmers produce less food for human consumption and more for fuel production – a factor contributing to growing food insecurity.
  • farmers produce less quality food for human consumption – a factor contributing to nutritional insecurity.

Biofuels and nutrition poverty:

  • farmers produce less diversified food for human consumption – a factor contributing to monoculture and diminishing biodiversity, global food markets dominated by a handful of crops (staple crops), less diversified diets, less resilient and sustainable farming, less food sovereignty.
  • less diversified, healthy and sustainable diets for European population – contributing to rise in diet-related NCDs, especially overweight and obesity.

Poor diets as a risk factor for chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs)

Only in 2009 - after the first waves of the economic crisis - 43 million people in the EU were estimated to suffer from food poverty. The first figures available for 2011 indicate a worsening situation. These estimates, however, do not seem to accurately account for nutritional poverty or insecurity where the most vulnerable consumers – mostly lower income groups eat less well, pay more for what they get in relative terms, and have worse access to healthy options – such as fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, pulses and legumes – and therefore as a consequence choose cheaper but unhealthy products (HFSS – high in saturated and trans-fats, sugar and salt) that contribute to the rise in chronic diet-related NCDs – currently of epidemic proportions in Europe.

NCDs such as cardiovascular diseases (CVD), diabetes type-2, certain forms of cancer as well as overweight and obesity (especially an alarming childhood obesity epidemic) imposes unacceptably high economic and social costs on countries at all income levels – including in the European Union. According to the latest European Health Report (WHO Europe), NCDs produce the largest share of mortality, accounting for about 80% of deaths and 77% of the disease burden (counted in years lost due to disability) in the European Region in 2009.

Improving diets (as an underlying risk factor for many NCDs) is an important strategy in chronic disease prevention and this can only be done if policies such as agriculture and food, health, environment and energy are coherent, not contradictory.

Biofuels, saturated fat and NCDs

The European Union pushes for biofuels replacing fossil fuels either by local (European) or exported biofuels production and consumption. Often, this happens on account of diverted land use, produced crops or increased imports of biocrops for biofuels, such as in a case of rapeseed and palm oil in the EU.

Palm oil imports to the EU doubled between 2000 and 2006, mostly to substitute for rapeseed oil diverted from food to fuel within the EU. While rapeseed oil contains half the amount of saturated fat than the standard olive oil and higher levels of ‘good’ fatty acids, this relatively good quality oil has been destined to be ‘burned in our cars’ instead of contributing to efforts to improve quality of diet at population level. Known for its negative environmental and social impacts, biomedical research indicates that palm oil, which is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease. Palm oil is extensively used in global and European food and chemical industry, mainly in confectionary, cookies, margarine, cereals, but also in soaps or cosmetics. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), excessive intake of palmitic acid (family of saturated fats), which makes up 44% of palm oil, increases blood cholesterol levels and may contribute to heart disease. Several studies have linked palm oil and cardiovascular disease including a 2011 analysis of 23 countries which showed that for each kilogram of palm oil added to the diet annually there was an increase in ischemic heart disease deaths. Furthermore, the World Health Organization and other health authorities have urged reduced consumption of oils like palm oil.

- EPHA Briefing: Public health nutrition, food security and consumers’ considerations of the EU Biofuel strategy

Last modified on September 15 2013.