Renewable Fuels Association (RFA)

Understanding land use change and US ethanol expansion

0

Source: Renewable Fuels Association (RFA)

Understanding changes in land use—such as deforestation, urbanization and agriculture expansion—is important if society is to properly address the challenges of climate change, utilization of natural resources, and energy production and consumption. However, the intensifying debate over potential indirect land use changes resulting from biofuels expansion is nebulous at best. At worst, it is tainted by ideological or political agendas.

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. However, the subject of land use change is much more complicated than some would suggest. 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.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new administration, and a new Congress attempt to address these exceedingly complex issues, it is critical that the discourse involves multiple disciplines and is informed by clear thinking, reliable data, and transparent analyses. This report discusses historical agricultural land use and crop utilization trends, explores the role of increased productivity, looks at the contributions of ethanol feed co‐products, and examines global
agricultural land use projections obtained from Informa Economics.

Key findings include:

GROWTH IN ETHANOL PRODUCTION HAS NOT SIGNIFICANTLY DRIVEN LAND USE CHANGES
• Historical trends indicate that increased U.S. ethanol demand has not been a significant driver of global land use change. Increased crop productivity (growing more on the same amount of land) has primarily provided the growth in production necessary to meet heightened demand for crop‐based feed, food, and fuel. Moving forward, more pronounced gains in productivity promise to mitigate the need for large amounts of new agricultural lands.
• In 2007/08, just 0.9 percent of world major cropland was needed (on a gross basis) to meet the grain requirements of the U.S. ethanol industry. When the ethanol industry’s production of feed co‐products are factored in, the net use of global cropland for U.S. ethanol production was 0.6 percent, or an area roughly the size of the state of West Virginia.
• Although U.S. ethanol production is expected to grow in the years ahead, the amount of land needed to support U.S. ethanol demand will continue to be small compared to world agricultural land use. Projections from Informa Economics suggest the land required to produce 15 billion gallons of grain ethanol in the United States in 2015 amounts to less than 1 percent of world cropland.

INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY REDUCES THE AMOUNT OF LAND NEEDED FOR AGRICULTURE

• Heightened demand for crops in the last several decades has been met primarily through increased productivity per unit of land. Higher crop yields relieve pressure on land resources and mitigate the need to expand agricultural land use. 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.

• Despite increases in the amount of coarse grains used for ethanol, the amount of land dedicated to coarse grains (corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rye, and millet) 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. Despite a reduction in land dedicated to coarse grains, annual world coarse grain production has increased nearly 50 percent since 1980.

AGRICULTURAL LAND USE CAN EXPAND WITHOUT JEOPARDIZING FOREST OR OTHER SENSITIVE LANDS

• Recent research has concluded that significant global capacity exists to expand agricultural land use without jeopardizing land used for forest or other sensitive environmental ecosystems. According to experts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Land is available for agricultural expansion without clearing new forest.”
• A team of researchers at Stanford University recently found that a significant amount of abandoned agricultural land could potentially be brought back into production. The study found, “the estimated global area of abandoned agriculture is 385‐472 million hectares,” which is an area equivalent to roughly half of the land area of the continental United States.
• Similarly, a 2002 study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization revealed a tremendous amount of unused land is potentially suitable for agricultural. FAO determined, “There is still potential agricultural land that is as yet unused…” and that an amount of land twice as large as that which is currently farmed “…is to some degree suitable for rainfed (agricultural) production.”

MODELS USED TO PREDICT FUTURE AGRICULTURAL LAND USE CHANGES HAVE LIMITATIONS

• There is currently no scientific consensus on what methodologies are most appropriate for analyzing potential land use changes and the carbon emissions that would result from such conversions. In an attempt to forecast the potential global direct and indirect land use changes of expanding U.S. biofuels production in the future, federal and state government agencies are relying on global equilibrium models and other econometric models. These models have numerous limitations and cannot possibly predict with any certainty the extraordinarily complex causal interactions that drive land use change decisions.
• It is virtually impossible for a global equilibrium model or other economic model to predict with any certainty what impact a single event, such as the increase in demand for biofuels in the United States, will have indirectly on global land use patterns. Certainly, tools exist that can assist in empirically quantifying land conversions that have occurred, but these tools do not and cannot positively assign the cause of these land use changes.

ETHANOL FEED CO‐PRODUCTS MITIGATE LAND USE CHANGE

• The feed coproducts (commonly known as distillers grains) generated by ethanol biorefineries play an important role in mitigating impacts on land use change. Only a portion of every hectare of grain “dedicated” to ethanol production is actually used for biofuel production. The remaining portion of the hectare is more accurately characterized as producing livestock feed.

• One hectare of corn used for ethanol produces more than 4,000 liters 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.

U.S. CORN AND SOYBEAN EXPORTS REMAIN STRONG WHILE BIOFUELS PRODUCTION GROWS

• One of the main arguments waged by those who believe increased biofuels production will lead to significant indirect land use change is the idea that U.S. corn and soybean exports will drop appreciably, inciting cultivation in other countries to account for the lost volume on the world market. Such an export reduction has not occurred. In fact, corn exports reached record levels in 2007/08 and, despite the current global economic slowdown, are projected to be above the 10‐
year average in 2008/09. Soybean exports also set a new record in 2007/08 and are expected to remain strong in 2008/09.

• Exports of ethanol feed co‐products like distillers grains are likely to top 4 million metric tons in 2008 and have increased dramatically in the last three years. These exports are offsetting some demand for corn and soybean exports, an occurrence that is often overlooked.

Customer comments

No comments were found for Understanding land use change and US ethanol expansion. Be the first to comment!