The farming industry is working with policy makers to ensure UK growers are not disadvantaged by new European legislation governing the sustainability of biofuels.

Under the Renewable Energy Directive, which recently came into effect in the UK, mandatory sustainability and carbon targets have been set for all biofuels sold in Europe.

This complex regulation requires biofuel manufacturers to demonstrate that the feedstocks they use comply with minimum land sustainability standards and give at least a 35% greenhouse gas emissions saving over their fossil fuel equivalent.

The introduction of a “sustainability” declaration on grain passports last season, combined with updates to the Red Tractor crops scheme (see Meeting land sustainability requirements below), is designed to address the RED land sustainability requirement by guaranteeing crops are not grown on land with a high biodiversity value or high carbon value (eg peat land) and that the land meets cross-compliance requirements.

But it is the GHG saving requirement of the RED that has generated some concern, because of the use of “default values” when calculating the total carbon footprint of different feedstocks, says Ian Waller of Fivebargate consultants.

In recognition of the complexities of providing carbon footprint data for crops bought on the spot market, current legislation allows biofuel suppliers using crops sourced from the EU to use default values, provided those crops are sourced from regions with a carbon footprint better than a set threshold. For oilseed rape this threshold is 29g CO2 eqv/MJ and for wheat it is 23g CO2 eqv/MJ.

Regional carbon footprint numbers for different crops are defined in official reports for each country – the UK calculations were done for the Department for Transport by consultancy AEA. But this report (known as NUTS2) suggests only a few areas of the UK have a lower GHG footprint than the required RED threshold for oilseed rape, none of which are in prime arable regions. This casts a question mark over how easily oilseed rape from such regions could go into biofuel markets in the future, Mr Waller says.

“For wheat the situation is far better. However, there are still three areas of the UK that are above the threshold and cannot use the default values,” the NFU’s Ruth Digby adds.

“We believe there are some errors in the methodology of the AEA report that have adversely affected the numbers for oilseed rape and the NFU, the oilseeds crushers association SCOPA, British Sugar and the Renewable Energy Association are working to get this changed.

“The DfT has recognised there are errors in the report and has committed to re-evaluate the work. The question will now be when this can happen and how much of a difference this will make to the numbers.”

Do growers need to worry?

In short, no. There is nothing farmers can do to influence the carbon value assigned to specific UK regions and existing biofuels facilities are “grandfathered” against having to provide GHG information until April 2013.

Therefore the sustainability declaration on grain passports is sufficient for the market at the moment, says Ms Digby. “Farmers must continue to complete their sustainability declarations on the grain passport for all compliant crops to ensure their crops are not rejected by users with these requirements and to ensure UK crop retains its value for all markets.”

A non-compliant crop is only one that has been grown on an area where there has been a conversion from non-arable land, such as permanent pasture, to arable production since 1 January 2008, she says. “This crop must not be marketed to an end-use with these sustainability requirements and the grain passport sustainability declaration must not be signed for this equivalent volume. Records will be checked at audit so information should be retained.”

If some UK regions are still deemed to be above the GHG threshold in the revised AEA report, it could mean the trade will have to provide more carbon footprint evidence for crops from such regions to be sold into the biofuels industry after next April, Ms Digby says.

However, the issue of carbon accounting and greenhouse gas emissions is also becoming increasingly important for many end-users, retailers and brands, so it is something growers need to watch, she notes.

“It is expected that more accurate regional default numbers and in the future even real data will be needed, both to meet requirements of a higher GHG saving from 2017 under the legislation and as carbon values become valued in the market as other emissions legislation, such as the Fuel Quality Directive, begin to impact the supply of fuels.”

A number of tools have been developed to provide a “carbon footprint” of different products and by different companies, however none of these are currently accredited under the RED to provide verified numbers for use in emissions calculations, she adds.

“We don’t want to see multiple tools in the market place, so there needs to be a single system and farmers must be able to control their own information, providing it as and when it is requested and recognised or rewarded.”

Meeting land sustainability requirements

Section 8 of the AIC Combinable Crops Passport now has a declaration to show compliance with RED sustainability criteria.

Last season some grain traders also introduced a separate declaration form that allows growers to confirm compliance with ISCC (International Sustainability & Carbon Certification) standards. ISCC is a German assurance scheme that essentially shows RED sustainability criteria have been met. Crucially for UK growers, it allows crops such as oilseed rape to continue to be sold into the German biodiesel market. Germany was the first country to introduce the RED last year and any crops going into its biofuels market, whether grown there or imported from elsewhere, need to comply with their national sustainability requirements.

The NFU and Assured Food Standards have been working with the European Commission for some time to get the Red Tractor assurance scheme recognised under the RED as way of meeting these land sustainability requirements, effectively negating the need for ISCC. Although this decision has been delayed, it is hoped the Red Tractor scheme will be accepted under the RED later this year.