Science - December 4, 2017

Stop filling fuel tanks with food

Roelof Kleis

Europe should stop using food crops for the production of biofuels. A large group of scientists called for this in an open letter to the Dutch Cabinet following a Wageningen initiative.

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The letter, which was printed in the Dutch newspaper Trouw last Saturday, is an initiative of Michiel Köhne, Assistant Professor of Anthropology of Law. In just a short time, he amassed 174 signatures for the letter in which the European Union’s policy on biofuels is renounced with a determined voice. One quarter of the signatories are Wageningen researchers, including five professors from the social and environmental sciences.

Negative influence
The letter is addressed to State Secretary Van Veldhoven (Infrastructure and Water Management) and Minister Wiebes (Economic Affairs and Climate Policy). Today, Van Veldhoven debates with the Dutch House of Representatives about the use of biofuels until the year 2020. In December, Minister Wiebes will speak in Brussels about the use of biofuels in the next decennium. In the letter, the researchers call for the governors to acknowledge that the current biofuel policy has a negative influence on the environment and humans and that the European Union should stop the policy of putting food crops in fuel tanks.

The tables seem to be turning. This is the time to make a move.
Michiel Köhne

Köhne has been studying the social issues and legislation surrounding palm oil for years. He has seen the ‘poverty and conflict over land’ resulting from the palm oil industry from up close. ‘I have always thought it was weird that the use of palm oil is perceived as sustainable in the Netherlands. But what can one do about it? The palm oil lobby is large. As an individual, you feel powerless.’ That feeling changed when, during recent public lectures, he caught wind of the battle that Milieudefensie wages against the use of palm oil as biofuel.

More emissions
What’s more, recent research on behalf of the European Commission revealed that adding biofuel does not reduce but instead significantly increase the emissions of CO2. According to the study, biodiesel made from palm oil emits three times as much as fossil fuels. Köhne: ‘The tables seem to be turning. This is the time to make a move.’ The idea to write a letter addressed to The Hague came soon after.

In his search for supporters, Köhne was grateful to use the student teams that were already working for Milieudefensie. ‘An email is quickly sent to the trash with a simple click, but a student standing at your door is not as easily dismissed.’ That approach resulted in 174 signatures in a short amount of time. In Wageningen, these signatures mostly originated from the social and environmental sciences. Köhne attributes this to the network that was tapped into. On a side note: not everyone who was approached signed the letter. ‘For some people, the letter was not sufficiently subtle. I agree, but that was a conscious choice.’

The letter to the governors is available here.

Re:actions 1

  • John

    No problem just use algie. More bang for the buck quickly replentished. Some can also be used for food. Get on the scientific band wagon. Leave the crude in the ground.


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  • Herman Hegge

    Het komt aan op de nuance zoals Fons Janssen schrijft. Een generieke ban op biobrandstoffen zoals blijkbaar voorgesteld door de wetenschappers uit Wageningen komt theoretisch over. De landbouw wereldwijd kan nog veel meer CO2 vastleggen dan er tegenwoordig gebeurt en dat kan met respect voor de natuur en leefomgeving. Het bovenstaaande initiatief helpt daarbij helaas niet.

  • Fons Janssen

    Hier heb je nuance:
    Er zijn verschillende soorten biobrandstoffen en verschillende soorten landbouw, waarbij biobrandstofbeleid in sommige gebieden wel leidt tot minder CO2 emissies en een positieve impact op landbouwgebieden. Brazilië is bijvoorbeeld hard aan de weg aan het timmeren met bioethanol uit suikerriet (

    Er zijn momenteel 3 generatie biobrandstoffen
    De eerste generatie brandstoffen is gebaseerd op suiker of suikerpolymeren (zoals zetmeel).
    De tweede generatie is gebaseerd op cellulose, wat de niet-eetbare bestanddelen zijn van planten.
    De derde generatie zal komen uit grote bioreactoren vol wieren, algen, micro-organismes.

    Biobrandstoffen uit reststromen valt niet mooi onder deze karakterisatie, maar speelt wel een belangrijke rol in de definities wanneer iets wel of niet bruikbaar is.
    Daarbij heb je ook het verschil tussen bioethanol en biodiesel.

    Stoppen met het quotum voor biobrandstoffen is dus iets waar goed over nagedacht moet worden of dat er een afweging gemaakt moet worden met strenge certificaten en hogere eisen.