Straw is not waste but co-product, EU farmers tell Commission

The Joint Research Centre, the EU science hub, has stated that residues are not wastes as a significant portion needs to be left in the field to preserve soil structure and fertility. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Can advanced biofuels really work?.

The European Commission has listed straw as waste that can be used to produce “advanced biofuel” to decarbonise the transport sector. But the EU farmers’ association begs to differ. It says straw is an agricultural co-product and not waste.

In the Annex IX of the revised Renewable Energy Directive proposal (RED II), the European Commission has listed a number of feedstocks that could be considered as “second-generation” or “advanced” biofuels to decarbonise the transport sector.

But critics suggest that not all of these feedstocks are actually waste. One of them is straw, which has many uses, from fuel to livestock bedding.

“Straw is a by-product and not a waste and it is used for animal bedding, return to soil as organic matter,” Copa-Cogeca told EURACTIV.

Asked about the impact on the price of straw in other agricultural uses, like when it’s used for advanced ethanol, Copa-Cogeca replied: “Straw is largely used in Denmark in cogeneration facilities and the market will decide on the price for straw according to the demand. The price of straw is variable according to local market conditions.”

The Commission insists that conventional biofuels have a high indirect land use change (ILUC) effect and that’s why it proposed their gradual phase-out. But it defends the list of advanced biofuels it has put forward, saying that all of these types of wastes and residues are considered as having low ILUC risk.

The Globiom Report, a study that was commissioned by the EU executive and focused on ILUC, makes a distinction between sustainable and unsustainable crop residues.

It says that sustainable residues are those collected by leaving 33%-50% of the residues on the field to replenish the soil and unsustainable residues have an ILUC impact.

The study also argued that they vary from country to country, higher on average than the levels for conventional ethanol and as high as palm oil in exactly the places like Denmark, home of the most active proponents of straw ethanol plants.

“If straw harvesting is limited to a sustainable removal rate of 33-50% (Ecofys 2013), no yield effect occurs and therefore no land use change effect is observed,” the study says.

The Joint Research Centre, the EU science hub, has stated that residues are not wastes as a significant portion needs to be left in the field to preserve soil structure and fertility.

“Part of the residues can be removed to produce bio-based materials and energy, while a significant part must be left in the field to preserve soil structure and fertility and maintain ecosystem services. The potential for additional removals or residues subject to sustainability criteria remain difficult to estimate,” it said.

Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd (EERL), a private company that produces conventional ethanol, says straw plays a significant role in the agricultural fields both as animal feed and soil conservation.

Eric Sievers, director of Investments with EERL, commented: “The Achilles Heel of the entire RED II approach to biofuels is not just that advanced biofuels are really expensive and persistently difficult to achieve in scale.”

“It’s that straw is neither a miracle feedstock nor a waste. The soil needs it. Animals eat it. Other industries buy vast quantities of it already,” he emphasised.

Ethanol Europe questions the scientific basis of the Commission’s proposals for advanced biofuels. It says Brussels has wrongly put all conventional biofuels in the same box and labelled them as “harmful”, while biofuels like from corn ethanol are not harmful.

It also says that residue based biofuels are not cheap, and if sustainability criteria are to be adhered to, then these advanced biofuels made from “waste” become far more costly.

Remove all multipliers

On 23 March, Copa and Cogeca adopted an updated position on the promotion of EU renewable energy.

The EU farmers insisted that the potential of crop-based biofuels to decarbonise the transport sector should be maximised in order to ensure greenhouse gas savings.

They also urged the EU institutions and the member states to remove the “misleading” double counting and multipliers.

Double-counting means, for instance, that if molasses’ consumption is 2%, it will be counted as 4% of the total energy used in transport. The same applies to green electricity, for which the EU Council has proposed a multiplier of five, meaning that for every two electric cars, ten will be counted in the final analysis.

Double-counted renewables will increase dependency on fossil fuels

The EU Council’s proposal for double or even multiple counting of advanced biofuels and green electricity consumption will increase Europe’s dependency on fossil fuels to cover “real” energy needs, something which conflicts with the principal objective of the RED II legislation.

“We need real blending rates that ensure renewables replace fossil fuels; not a policy that uses artificial multipliers to inflate the results and give the impression of success whilst increasing the EU’s dependence on fossil fuels”, Copa and Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen emphasised.

EU farmers are also against the use of palm oil and its derivatives, considering that sustainability problems such as deforestation in the country of origin remain unresolved. “European agriculture should not take the blame for deforestation in non-EU countries”, Pesonen said.

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