Biofuel Policy

The evergreen debate of Food versus Fuel


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Provision of biofuels policy 2018

Mains level: Paper 3- Trade offs involved in making fuels from food grains.

The article discusses the recent decision of the government to make alcohol from rice. The move was bound to trigger the debate over food security of the country with a population ravaged by hunger and poverty. While the 2009 biofuel policy had stressed the use of non-food resources, the 2018 updated policy allowed using excess grains. We all want to make a shift towards a green economy but is this the right time? Let’s find out.

What decisions did the government take?

  • The National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) chaired by the Union Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas decided to use “surplus” rice available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for conversion to ethanol.
  • The objective is to make alcohol-based hand-sanitisers and for the blending of ethanol with petrol. 
  • This decision is not only audacious but also an affront to the millions of people who are deeply affected by food insecurity.

The food question

  • In 2009, the National Policy on Biofuels stressed on the use of non-food resources to avoid a possible conflict between food and fuel.
  • Take the US’s example: In 2018-19, an astounding 37.6 per cent of the corn produced in the US is used for making ethanol.

  • In addition to cereals, oilseed crops like rapeseed, soybean and sunflower were used for biofuel production.
  • Rise in food prices: Such diversion of food crops to produce biofuel was considered one of the reasons for the rise in food prices globally.

What should be India’s strategy in this debate?

  • There is rampant poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in India.
  • India’s position in the Global Hunger Index has slipped nine places, ranking 102 among the 117 countries in 2019.
  • The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16, found that 38.4 per cent of children under five years are “stunted” (height for age) and 21 per cent are “wasted” (low weight for height).
  • In fact, over a period of 10 years, wasting has increased from 19.8 per cent in NFHS-3 to 21 per cent in NFHS-4.

The dictums of 2018 Policy

  • The 2018 National Policy on Biofuels had a target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol and 5 per cent blending of biodiesel in diesel by 2030.
  • This was to be achieved by increasing production using second-generation bio-refineries and developing new feedstock for biofuels.
  • It allowed the production of ethanol from damaged food grains like wheat and broken rice, which are unfit for human consumption.
  • The new policy allowed the use of excess food grain for ethanol in a bounty crop year, if endorsed by the Union Ministry of Agriculture.

Possible dangers

  • The quantity of rice from which ethanol will be produced has not been announced, nor do we know the price at which such rice will be sold by the FCI.
  • About 85 per cent of rice is Kharif crop, heavily dependent on monsoon.
  • Despite the prediction of a normal monsoon, What happens if the monsoon predictions go wrong? Will we be able to import grain?
  • Less damaged grains: Despite the commonly held belief of a lakh of tonnes of rotting grains, the FCI’s storage practices are actually quite good.
  • Damaged grains as a percentage of total quantity issued by the FCI has been just about 0.01 per cent to 0.04 per cent in the last five years.
  • Hardly any ethanol can be made from such a small amount of damaged grains.
  • Making ethanol from sound quality grains deprives food to humans as well as livestock.
  • At the time when uncertainties are looming large, it is imperative that food security and food price stability be given the highest priority.

Way forward

  • Ethanol can be produced from other ingredients such as B and C heavy molasses, sugar, sugar syrup, and sugarcane juice.
  • Ethanol has also been blessed with a low GST and enjoys relaxed conditions for inter-state movement if used for blending with petrol.
  • Since the economy faces a bleak prospect due to the impact of COVID-19, the government should first use the food grains to meet the requirement of about 10 to 20 crore people without ration cards.

The UPSC could ask a question on the following lines “Diverting food grains for making fuels has always been a contentious issue from the food security angle. At the same time reducing India’s dependence on import for fuels is as much a serious concern. The National Policy on Biofuels-2018 sought to strike the balance between the two. Critically analyse the various provisions of National Policy on Biofuels-2018 which were different from 2009 policy.”


The government must ensure the food safety of the country first and if it still has surplus rice, it must facilitate export to friendly countries which are suffering an adverse impact of COVID-19 on their economies.

Back2Basics: Generations of biofuels

  • There are three types of biofuels: 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels.
  • They are characterized by their sources of biomass, their limitations as a renewable source of energy, and their technological progress.
  • The main drawback of 1st generation biofuels is that they come from biomass that is also a food source.
  • This presents a problem when there is not enough food to feed everyone.
  • 2nd generation biofuels come from non-food biomass, but still compete with food production for land use.
  • Finally, 3rd generation biofuels present the best possibility for alternative fuel because they don’t compete with food.
  • However, there are still some challenges in making them economically feasible.

Important Provision of ‘National Policy on Biofuels, 2018

  • The government aims at increasing the utilization of biofuels in the energy and transportation sectors of the country by promoting the production of biofuels from domestic feedstock in the coming decade through this policy.
  • Larger goals such as the adoption of green fuels, national energy security, fighting climate change, generating employment, etc. would be facilitated through this policy. Along with that, technological advancements in the field of biofuels will also be encouraged.
  • MNRE has set an indicative target of 20% blending of ethanol in petrol and 5% blending of biodiesel in diesel to be achieved by 2030.
  • The percentage of the same currently stands at around 2% for petrol and less than 0.1% for diesel.

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