How Growing Demand for Ethanol Production and Changes in Land Use

The amount of agricultural land required to produce 15 billion gallons of grain ethanol in the United States by 2015, as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), is likely to be less than 1 percent of total world cropland, according to a new report released today by the Renewable Fuels Association. According to the report, “Understanding Land Use Change and U.S. Ethanol Expansion,” gains in agricultural productivity, coupled with the contribution of feed produced as an ethanol co-product, are expected to significantly mitigate the need for conversion of non-agricultural lands to support expanded U.S. biofuels production.

Read the report here.

“Using unsupported assumptions, imprecise economic models, and questionable logic, some have suggested growth in U.S. biofuels like ethanol would indirectly cause significant conversion of forest and grassland to agriculture in the United States and abroad,” said the report. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence demonstrating land conversion abroad is a result of U.S. biofuels production. “Unfortunately, the current state of land use change science is far from conclusive and no consensus exists on how best to analyze the potential indirect land use impacts of expanding biofuels production,” continued the report.

In addition to examining projections from Informa Economics on future global agriculture land use, the RFA report cites studies and findings by the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other researchers and research organizations. The report analyzes historical cropland and crop utilization trends, explores the complex and multifaceted nature of land use changes, and discusses the uncertainty of current land use change modeling approaches.

The debate over the causes and effects of land use change has serious implications for the future of the U.S. biofuels industry. As required by EISA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is establishing a methodology for determining the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of various biofuels, including GHGs from so-called indirect land use changes. According to the RFA report, the models currently used by EPA and others to assess potential indirect land use changes unfortunately ”... have numerous limitations and cannot possibly predict with any certainty the extraordinarily complex causal interactions that drive land use change decisions.”

As the report notes, several factors must be considered by those seeking to accurately determine the causes of direct and indirect land use changes. Those factors include:

Minimal use of farmland for biofuels production.
“Despite increases in the amount of coarse grains being used for ethanol, the amount of land dedicated to coarse grains (corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rye, and millet) production globally has decreased over the past 30 years. Global area for coarse grains has decreased 8 percent since 1980, while world grain ethanol production has increased dramatically. Global coarse grains area peaked at 349 million hectares in 1981 and is estimated at 313 million hectares in 2008,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In fact, the total net amount of cropland dedicated to American ethanol production in 2007 was just 0.6% of total cropland worldwide, an area roughly the size of West Virginia.

Global agriculture’s increasing productivity is meeting rising demand.
Production agriculture, particularly in the United States, has dramatically increased its productivity through the use of technology. For example, using average global corn yields from 40 years ago (1967), more than 330 million hectares would be required to produce the world corn crop grown on 158 million hectares in 2007. In other words, it would have taken more than twice as much land in 1967 to grow a crop equivalent in size to the 2007 world corn crop.

Arable farmland is available for sustainably increased production.
Though it seems unlikely that significant amounts of land will be needed to support future growth of the U.S. biofuels industry, vast amounts of land are available, if needed, for agricultural expansion. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. found:

“There is still potential agricultural land that is as yet unused. At present some 1.5 billion [hectares] of land is used for arable and permanent crops, around 11 percent of the world’s surface area. A new assessment by FAO and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) of soils, terrains and climates compared with the needs of and for major crops suggests that a further 2.8 billion [hectares] are to some degree suitable for rainfed production. This is almost twice as much as is currently farmed.”
Together with increases in productivity, global agriculture can continue to meet demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel.

Ethanol feed co-products contribute substantially to the global feed market and provide a considerable land use “credit.”
One hectare of corn used for ethanol produces more than 1000 gallons of fuel as well as an amount of feed equivalent to the volume of corn coming from 30 percent of a corn dedicated hectare and the amount of soybean meal from 50 percent of a soybean dedicated hectare.

Many factors drive land use changes around the world.
“One of the primary causes of global environmental change is tropical deforestation, but the question of what factors drive deforestation remains largely unanswered.”

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