Official Journal of the European Union

C 341/16

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Food security and bioenergy’ (own-initiative opinion)

2013/C 341/04

Rapporteur: Mr CHIRIACO

On 14 February 2013, the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 29(2) of its Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an own-initiative opinion on

Food security and bioenergy.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 3 September 2013.

At its 492nd plenary session, held on 18 and 19 September 2013 (meeting of 18 September), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 173 votes to 3 with 13 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) believes that the issue of food security should be placed at the heart of the EU's policies as a prerequisite for a strategy for global stability.


In the "food vs fuel" debate, while agreeing with the EU on the need to reduce our dependency on imports of fossil fuels, the Committee urges the Commission to prioritise the issues of security of food supply, land protection, the competitiveness of European agriculture and land use (1), making a close correlation between food security and bioenergy production (2).


The Committee believes that the future of the EU should be based on social, economic and environmental sustainability and that the production of renewable energy should be closely linked to achieving those objectives.


The Committee agrees with the Commission's decision to include binding provisions on land-use change in Directives 98/70/EC and 2009/28/EC, as current biofuels are produced from agricultural crops.


Reaffirming the view expressed in opinion TEN/502 (3), the Committee disagrees with the decision made by the Commission to assess indirect land-use change (ILUC) on the basis of a comparison of fossil-based and biogenic energy sources, looking exclusively at greenhouse gas emissions and downplaying issues such as security of supply and the impact of fossil fuels.


The Committee endorses the Commission's proposal to limit the production of biofuels derived from food crops – while taking account of investments already made – and to incentivise "advanced" biofuels. It believes, however, that the production of second-generation biofuels that use wood and straw could remove carbon sinks and thus increase CO2 levels (4).


The Committee feels that its assessment would be different if microalgae were also used as a feedstock for the production of biofuels; even if this is not yet a commercial reality, it would, in comparison to first-generation biofuels, give less cause for concern regarding competition for land and water resources.


The Committee fully reaffirms the conclusion regarding biofuels that emerged from the EESC food security conference in 2011: "biofuel production should comply with shared principles and be subject to impact assessment studies in which the local community is closely involved, making sure careful attention is paid to the right to food".


In line with this assessment, the Committee recommends that the Commission adopt at European level tools such as operator-level indicators to assess the potential impact of bioenergy projects on food security at individual Member State level.

2.   General comments


The energy system at international level is currently going through a very difficult period. This is due in part to the global economic crisis, but above all to the geopolitical situation in North Africa and the Middle East.


OECD figures for 2009 show a fall in energy consumption of 4,4 % at global level, 5 % in the USA and 5,5 % in the EU, while in non-OECD countries demand rose by 2 %. To this equation must be added the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, which has prompted a number of countries, including Germany, to abandon the use of nuclear fuel to produce energy.


Europe currently imports 80 % of the oil, 60 % of the natural gas and 40 % of the coal needed to cover its energy needs, estimated at 1 583,3 Mtoe (Nomisma). The share of non-renewable energy is 91 % (oil 36,6 %, natural gas 24,5 %, coal 15,7 %, nuclear energy 13,6 %) and the renewable share 9 % (6,1 % biomass, biogas, municipal waste, 1,7 % hydro power, 0,7 % wind energy, 0,3 % geothermal energy, 0,1 % photovoltaic and solar).


Europe is increasingly dependent on energy imports. It is projected that in 2030, the EU-28 will import 84 % of the natural gas, 59 % of the coal and 94 % of the oil that it needs (EREC). Figures for 2009 show that transport is the sector that accounts for the greatest share of energy consumption, at 33 %; the residential sector accounts for 26,5 %; industry for 24,2 %; and services for 14 %; while agriculture accounts for the smallest share, at 2,3 %.


The goals that the EU is seeking to achieve can be summed up as follows:

reduce dependency on imported non-renewable energy, which accounts for 75 % of Europe's energy consumption, amounting to 890,5 Mtoe;

increase security of supply;

increase primary production in the EU-28 from the current 812 Mtoe; and

combat climate change and cut CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions.

2.2   The shift in energy policy


In recent years, the fossil-fuel-based energy system has displayed many shortcomings that put its future sustainability and supply security in doubt, with the need to target secure energy sources in a controlled system of energy imports.

As demand for energy continues to grow (IEA), the impending, unstoppable depletion of fossil fuels will jeopardise Europe's ability to meet its increasing energy needs. This depletion arises from the non-renewable nature of those fossil fuels; the transformation process involved takes an extremely long time, which is incompatible with the energy needs of contemporary society.


The main types of renewable energy are:

solar energy;

wind energy;

hydro power;

geothermal energy; and


This is not necessarily the full picture, especially with regard to the results of scientific research.


Bioenergy can be defined as energy obtained from biomass; biomass is classified according to its physical state and is divided into:

solid biomass from forestry or crops, and plant and animal waste from agriculture;

biogas: the gas that derives from the fermentation of biomass in the absence of oxygen, including municipal waste, manure, agricultural residues and agro-industrial by-products, industrial sludge and woody biomass;

bioliquids and biofuels obtained from vegetable oils (rapeseed, soya, sunflower and palm) from sugar, starchy and cellulosic crops (beet, sugar cane, corn, wheat and giant reed) and also the bioliquid obtained from the process of biomass pyrolysis.


Biomass is a renewable source that has already become an efficient source of energy. Biomass is any organic material that captures solar energy directly or indirectly during the process of chlorophyll photosynthesis. It is derived from energy crops or organic residues from forest products and the technical processing of agricultural products.


At global level, some 50 % of the potentially available residues derive from forestry. The other 50 % come from agriculture, where installations fuelled by biomass from agriculture and livestock are of particular importance (IEA).

2.3   EU initiatives in support of the development of renewable energy

The Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force on 21 March 1994;

The Altener programme for the promotion of renewable energy sources (Council Decision 93/500/EEC);

The Green Paper on renewable energy sources (1996);

The White Paper setting the objective of 12 % of energy used coming from renewables by 2010;

Directive 2001/77/EC on the promotion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources;

Directive 2003/30/EC on the promotion of the use of biofuels;

Council Directive 2003/96/EC of 27 October 2003 restructuring the Community framework for the taxation of energy products and electricity;

COM(2005) 628 final — Biomass action plan;

COM(2006) 34 final — An EU strategy for biofuels;

The Green Paper — A European strategy for sustainable, competitive and secure energy (2006);

The Climate-energy package (20-20-20), European Council, 9 March 2007;

Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources and amending and subsequently repealing Directives 2001/77/EC and 2003/30/EC (Text with EEA relevance);

Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Renewable Energy Road Map - Renewable energies in the 21st century: building a more sustainable future, COM(2006) 848 final;

Communication from the Commission - The support of electricity from renewable energy sources, SEC(2005) 1571 - COM(2005) 627 final.

3.   Specific comments

3.1   Bioenergy and socio-economic issues


The socio-economic impact of bioenergy is largely contingent on its costs (incentives, structural deficiencies) and benefits (linked activities, effects on GDP, CO2 reduction, employment effects, reduction of fuel risk, elimination of waste-disposal costs, production of fertilisers and other by-products) (Althesys). Furthermore, when the price of oil exceeds USD 70 a barrel, the production of bioenergy becomes competitive.


The current system of biomass production has an impact on the land, on the economy, on prices and on society as a whole. The Committee believes that these effects should be assessed in order to rectify inefficiencies and distortions.


The Committee believes that the development of bioenergy has repercussions on food security for reasons closely linked to prices and local factors. The main direct effect on prices derives from the demand for biofuels, as energy markets are larger than agricultural ones in value terms. Energy prices determine the agricultural prices of energy crops insofar as the increase in demand for energy linked to agricultural products determines the minimum price of sugar, corn, and rape and their maximum price, which if exceeded would render uncompetitive the use of agricultural crops in comparison with other energy sources such as wind, solar or geothermal. It is also worth noting the general problem that higher energy prices increase the cost of agricultural production inputs.


Bioenergy has emerged as a possible solution which can revitalise areas that are economically depressed and under-used agriculturally, in particular in developing sectors in the various stages of production, harvesting, transport and processing. From an economic and employment point of view, positive objectives can also be achieved: according to Commission communication COM(2005) 628 final, Biomass action plan, direct employment in 2010 was calculated at 300 000 new workers, mostly in rural areas.


The use of wooded areas for energy purposes can help rehabilitate local agri-forestry communities through greater stewardship of the land and protection of forested areas. Moreover, there is the potential to boost the capacity of forest ecosystems to perform their primary functions, namely to produce wood biomass and protect natural heritage and soil fertility.

3.2   The land


The Committee regrets the fact that, as happened in the past with oil, some rich countries with insufficient arable land to ensure a secure energy supply for their people, as well as multinationals and sovereign wealth funds, are making substantial investments in third countries in order to exploit the land. Thus we are faced with a land-grabbing situation, which is likely to disrupt established rural communities and damage the agricultural and forestry resources of local populations. In the Committee's view, this situation is far from being an example of sustainable development in economic, social and environmental terms.


Land-use conflict is an explosive issue, especially in the case of developing countries or large, sparsely populated countries (e.g. Brazil or the US state of Iowa). Although land-use conflict is to be expected, the concept can be conveyed more clearly bearing in mind that the amount of corn it takes to produce 25 gallons of bioethanol will feed one person for a whole year (Worldwatch Institute).


Land-use conflict is a problem linked to the importation of biofuels by the EU and the food supply in developing countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, given the tensions there over land ownership in the absence of land registers and customary law.


The Committee endorses the EU strategy on biofuels, COM(2006) 34 final, primarily where it states that it is essential that appropriate minimum environmental standards apply to feedstock production for biofuels, and highlights concerns raised over the use of set-aside land because of the potential impact on biodiversity and soil.

3.3   Water


In an ever more developed world, the unchecked use of water resources is steadily increasing. The causes of this lie in the growing global population and its distribution, changing food trends and the impact of biofuels. The current strategy for developing biofuels will definitely exacerbate the water crisis, and access to water could be a limiting factor for the production of feedstock such as corn and sugar cane.


The Committee believes that as regards crops grown for biofuel, there should be a shift towards non-irrigated crops, which can also grow in inland and disadvantaged areas, as in order to produce one litre of biodiesel it takes 4 000 litres of water for the irrigation of the crops and the chemical conversion process.

3.4   The environment


Distorted use of the soil, particularly of farmland designated for production of both food and bioenergy, brings potential risks such as:

increased pressures on the whole agricultural sector due to the intensification of cultivation (soil compaction, excess of nutrients, excessive consumption of water, erosion);

transformation of fields and grassland into arable land for energy crops, with a loss of carbon sinks;

loss of biodiversity due to intensive production patterns; and

homogenisation of the landscape (EEA report 7/2006).


However, the Committee thinks that rational use of the soil tying in closely with the good farming practices employed in the EU, based on crops linked to the production of the various types of bioenergy, may actually increase biodiversity and reduce the homogenisation of the landscape. The Committee believes that there is no turning back for Europe here.


In this respect, there should be a focus on second-generation biofuels, even though, as these fuels lend themselves to being treated as an intensive industry, farmers would be relegated to the sole role of supplying the feedstock, without any guarantee of financial reward. The Committee considers it necessary to rebalance the role of farmers in relation to the production and marketing of energy crops in order to foster producer organisations throughout the supply chain; such organisations can thus play a key role in the negotiation of balanced, endorsed contracts.

3.5   The European approach to bioenergy


With large-scale terrestrial energy crop growing comes the need for sustainable management of forests and farmland. Biomass production for energy purposes can have a positive impact on the environment only if done properly. For instance, the abandonment of rural areas has led to destabilising natural factors. Land not maintained by positive human activities is exposed to a higher risk of landslides, desertification and fires.


The Committee believes that to promote the integrated development of bioenergy on the ground, a model of distributed generation and short energy chains needs to be developed, involving small-scale plants processing locally-produced biomass and thus bringing benefits in terms of environmental impact and the real possibility of directly involving farmers in the production chain (as individuals or groups).


The Committee endorses the good practice guidelines to be applied to the various bioenergy crops put forward by the European Environment Agency, including:

ensuring the cultivation of the land throughout the year;

cultivation on slopes;

creating windbreaks by introducing crops of different heights;

maintaining and creating windbreaks as part of field boundaries, and introducing practices that prevent organic matter loss in the soil.


The Committee believes that, if properly managed, the development of energy-orientated farming could help ensure a constant human presence on the land and thus secure its stewardship and harness its resources, particularly forest resources.


Furthermore, in the agricultural sector, bioenergy production can mesh with agri-food production in a controlled way, helping to diversify market channels, easing the transition to an increasingly competitive agricultural sector and providing non-conflictual solutions regarding the allocation of agricultural products by the new Member States.

3.6   Quality-control systems for bioenergy production


A highly diverse range of methods are used to study the environmental effects of bioenergy. Among these, the Committee would highlight:

the carbon footprint of biomass production; and

DPSIR (driving force, pressure, state, impact, response) assessments.


In assessing environmental impact, life cycle assessments (LCAs) can be used to determine and quantify the actual or potential environmental and energy burdens present in the various phases of the cycle of production and consumption of bioenergy. This technique allows a comparison of the environmental profile of the various forms of bioenergy with that of fossil fuels that perform similar functions.


The Committee deems to be consistent with the principles set out above the position of the countries participating in the Global Energy Partnership, including the USA and China, which have signed an international agreement on controlling the use of biofuels and on their impact on the environment and the food balance. Any country can measure the environmental sustainability of bioenergy by means of 24 voluntary criteria and indicators.


Against this backdrop, the Committee believes that when using surplus land to produce feedstock for bioenergy there is a need not only to identify the environmental, economic and social constraints involved but also to ascertain, with reference to the ILUC factor, whether the land to be used for energy crops could actually give rise to an increase in CO2.


The Committee agrees with the Commission's decision to monitor the risks associated with biofuels in the transport sector (Directive 28/2009), to limit the contribution of biofuels and bioliquids produced from food crops in line with the level of maturity of the various technologies, and to encourage the production of bioenergy from products that do not generate further demand for land, such as the burning of municipal waste.


The Committee feels that the use of first-generation biofuels should not impede the EU from investing in research into new sources of clean energy (5).

Brussels, 18 September 2013.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  OJ C 198, 10.7.2013, p. 56.

(2)  OJ C 110, 9.5.2006, p. 49.

(3)  OJ C 198, 10.7.2013, p. 56.

(4)  OJ C 198, 10.7.2013, p. 56.

(5)  OJ C 271, 19.9.2013, p. 111-115.