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Solvent-treated oilcakes must be included in the EU Fertilising Products Regulation to achieve its policy goals – especially because they are already allowed for use in food, feed, and organic farming!

March 30, 2022 by Jessica Fitch

Oilcakes – the nitrogen-rich pressed plant materials left after oils are extracted – have long been valuable raw materials for producing animal feed and organic fertilisers. However, these oilcakes – a by-product of the food industry but also other sectors such as the production of botanical cosmetics – are not currently eligible for inclusion in EU Fertilising Products under the new Regulation 2019/1009.

Considering the regulation’s stated objective was to foster the circular economy and open the Single Market to organic and organo-mineral fertilisers, among other products, the omission of oilcakes treated with solvents as component materials for organic-based fertilising products is both puzzling and problematic. Although ECOFI has raised this issue with the European Commission, no progress has been made towards including oilcakes treated with solvents – only just over three months before application of the new EU Fertilising Products Regulation (FPR).

Placing organic-based fertilising products containing oilcakes treated with solvents on the EU market seems more pertinent than ever, considering escalating mineral fertiliser costs across the globe and identifying safe and sustainable nitrogen sources from local value chains within Europe in the weeks, months, and years to come.

Hexane or other solvents: Allowed for use in food, but not fertilisers?

Oilcakes are valued for their high nitrogen content from vegetal origin. Composting or other additional processing would depreciate their nitrogen content, diminishing their agronomic efficiency and value for farmers.

Today, oilcakes, including those treated with solvents, can be used in fertilising products under national rules across the European Union. They can be fed to animals under EU feed law. In directive 2009/32/EC annex I, hexane, the most commonly used solvent for oilcakes, is listed as an extraction solvent that may be used to process raw materials, foodstuffs, food components, or food ingredients. However, the new FPR current only foresees the use of those oilcakes which are not treated with the help of solvents (CMC 2). Solvent-treated oilcakes would have to undergo REACH registration, raising the costs far beyond what is economically feasible. As a result, oilcakes that are not high-enough quality for feed risk being disposed of, resulting in a loss of their nitrogen content to the environment rather than its re-use, in conflict with the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy goals.

Hexane is the solvent most commonly added to oilcakes to maximise the extraction of oils, including extracting edible oils from oilseeds. Thus, we can eat oil that has been in contact with hexane, but we cannot apply hexane-treated oilcakes to soils under the FPR. This means that for the use of oilcakes as component materials, organic-based fertilisers need to meet stricter requirements than actual food products ingested directly by consumers.[1]

The small traces of hexane that remain in oilseed cakes are considered so innocuous that Regulation (EU) 2019/2164 on the labelling of organic products does not distinguish between various oilseed cakes and even uses “oilseed cake meal” as an example in its Annex I, where it explicitly says that “meal” refers to the by-product obtained by solvent extraction.

Compared to the oilcakes it treats, hexane is expensive, so oil producers have systems to recover and re-use as much of the hexane as possible. The solvent-laden meal is put in direct contact with steam at a temperature above 100°C for at least 25-30 minutes, ensuring the complete vaporisation of the solvent. Modern oilseed industries have a recovery rate superior to 99,9% for their solvents.

The traces that remain in the oil or oilcake are highly volatile and, therefore, will not be present in the final product in anything above negligible levels, whether edible oil or organic fertiliser. Therefore, there are no risks to human health or the environment from the use of hexane in oilcakes.

Impossible to enforce

Oilcakes are sold on a commodity basis, with an oilcake supplier mixing oilcakes from multiple sources. For this reason, the customer has no way of ascertaining whether any or all of the oilcakes purchased were treated with hexane or cold-pressed (often preferred for artisanal production). Similarly, roasting oilseeds can lead to a blending of those from cold press extraction and hexane extraction. The aggregation of these oilcakes by the supplier means that the fertiliser producer cannot ascertain whether any chemical solvents have been used or not or the exact origin of the oilcakes.

If REACH registration were required for oilcakes treated with hexane, their use in EU Fertilising Products would not be feasible, therefore eliminating another critical raw material for the production of high-quality organic-based fertilisers. Because oilcakes are mixed on the commodity markets, it would prevent all oilcakes from being used in organic-based fertilisers, not just those treated with solvents. As Member States intend to align their national rules with the FPR, this problem would ripple across the supply chain.

Oilcakes treated with solvents such as hexane are already allowed in food, feed, and organic agriculture. ECOFI therefore calls on Member States to include oilcakes treated with chemical solvents as permitted component materials of EU Fertilising Products with no REACH registration requirement.

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[1] Solvents, including hexane, allowed for food and feed in EU are listed in Annex I of 2009/32/EC