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Indirect Land Use Change and Biofuels: Real or Hypothetical?

By: Dennis Keeney

While increased food prices is the most contentious of the many controversies surrounding the rapid increase in ethanol production from corn, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions from what is termed “indirect land use change” (ILUC) ranks a close second in the debates. (Here is a one study on ILUC.)

The controversy was triggered by a 2008 paper in Science by Searchinger et al. that stated, “Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels.” The conclusions have been supported by papers by Fargione et al.

This statement has defined indirect land use change (ILUC) and triggered research and debate by industry and their spokespeople, university and federal researchers and by numerous policymakers who are taking stands for or against the issue. A Google search on the title of the Searchinger paper gave 48,200 hits.

In a September 2010 briefing Transport and Environment, a pan-European association with scientific and educational aims, summarized the findings of numerous EU, US and UN agencies relative to ILUC. They concluded:

“The RED (Renewable Energy Directive) and the FQD (Fuel Quality Directive) include a legislative mandate for the Commission to produce a proposal for including the emissions from indirect land use change. There is clearly an overwhelming body of scientific evidence revealing the appropriateness and the urgency of addressing these known but as yet unaccounted sources of GHG emissions. The Commission should therefore use the best available science to propose a robust ILUC factor, which is the only short and medium term measure that would send a market signal to biofuels producers and drive sustainable development of the industry.”

However this overwhelming scientific evidence is under attack in a manner similar to that conducted on the science of other issues that affect industry, such as climate change. Visit the Merchants of Doubt website for more information on the  “campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge.”

An example of such a campaign intended to mislead is the paper by Mathews and Tan. Their primary platform is that the findings of Schlesinger et al  are not replicable. Other critiques have recently been published, as addressed in this paper by Farber.

The detractors are predicable: the renewable fuels industry and the agribusiness establishment, the US Department of Energy and the Land Grant Universities  in the Midwest (except for Minnesota) have questioned ILU. These include Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.

Let’s use a little intuitive thinking.

The increase in grain commodity prices and of food and fuel prices over the past several years starting in 2008 is a given.. This is usually attributed to a combination of growing demand, population increase, global climate change and biofuels. Most predict the pressures will exist into the future, leading to extreme price speculation in the US on good quality farmland where land prices have tripled recently. The logical economic response has been to increase not only the land in corn, but also the inputs, including nitrogen fertilizer. This will result in increased greenhouse gas output, including nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas that comes largely from fertilizer application. Corn yields and production increased in response, although poor weather has cut corn yields below expectations for the past two years, helping keep prices high.

With increasing grain prices and no place for land expansion in most rich countries, the logical move is to expand to the new frontiers. Brazil is the first choice and has attracted much US and China investment. The land purchased has been turned into mega grain farms (largely soybean).  Originally, the land purchased was either cerrado (savannah) or rainforest. The original vegetation was destroyed and the land ploughed, resulting undoubtedly in large releases of carbon dioxide. Was this a result of ethanol and biodiesel, or would it have happened anyway?

Foreign investment in land, especially in Africa, has recently expanded rapidly, a phenomenon known euphemistically as” land grabs,” which have reached historic proportions. Land grabs offer strong evidence that indirect land use change is real. In Africa alone, nearly 60 million hectares of land were purchased or leased in 2009 alone.

Development of these lands, which would not have occurred if food and fuel prices were low, involves major clearing and tillage. They are a major part of ILUC as defined in the Searchinger et al paper. I find it interesting that this aspect of land grabs has not been discussed previously. It is only a matter of connecting the dots.

To summarize, ILUC as an abstract concept has been fodder for the anti-science lobbyists. And they have thrown much confusion into the debate to convince policymakers that the connection is weak.

But when the foreign direct investment in land to grow fuel and food largely for export is the issue, ILUC comes alive. The debate must not be allowed to die. Biofuels that use food crops, particularly corn ethanol, are in fact adding a large extra load of carbon dioxide because of their affects of food prices.

There is an alternative: the use of non-food cellulosic crops to produce ethanol and other biofuels. We will discuss these in a future blog.

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