New research finds no plausible land use change from ethanol production

(article published by The Grand Island (Nebraska) Independent)

After a thorough analysis of empirical evidence, new peer-reviewed research calls into question one of the chief claims of ethanol opponents, who cite the negative impact of so-called “indirect land use change” as a result of corn production for ethanol, according to the National Corn Growers Association.

“It’s time for flat-earth ethanol opponents to back off on land use change,” said NCGA President Bart Schott. “Unless they can present clear and compelling data, they need to realize that technology and science are not on their side. We’re growing much more corn per acre, and this — along with shifting demands — eliminates the need to significantly increase acreage to meet all needs.”

The new study, titled “Indirect Land Use Change for Biofuels: Testing Predictions and Improving Analytical Methodologies,” was prepared by Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale of Michigan State University, and will be published in an upcoming issue of Biomass and Bioenergy.

Prior studies on indirect land use change have failed to compare their predictions to past global historical data, Kim and Dale pointed out. They use an empirical approach to detect evidence for indirect land use change that might be catalyzed by United States ethanol production through a data-driven statistical approach, and the results show that biofuel production in the United States between 2002 and 2007 was not significantly correlated with changes in croplands for corn plus soybean in regions of the world that are corn and soybean trading partners of the United States.

This is not the first time a report has cast strong doubts on the idea of indirect land use change, Schott noted. A 2010 study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory found “little support” for large land-use conversion or diversion of corn exports because of ethanol production in the United States during the past decade.

Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen said solving America’s energy crisis must rely on the “best available science.”

“Since its inception, the notion indirect land use change has been deeply flawed and repeatedly disputed,” Dinneen said.

He said biofuels such as ethanol offer “unparalleled environmental benefits as a renewable alternative to gasoline.”

Our Take:
Here is the work of actual scientists, looking at actual data about agricultural and land use changes, which reflect the first period of the current US ethanol production boom, from 2002-2007. They disprove the suppositions of an environmental lawyer turned into a Princeton University “scholar” who said that if one acre of farmland in the US changes from soybean to corn planting (to supply an ethanol plant), then another acre overseas must replace that soybean acre, and that acre, which used to be pastureland, must then be replaced by cutting an acre of forest. This hypothesis holds the danger of being plausible. Careful examination of actual deforestation and changes in land use show the hypothesis holds no water.

We predict a sizable number of people will, however, continue to believe in indirect land use change. Sometimes research that purports to be science in the public interest is neither science, nor in the public interest. 

Perhaps the most important first step is to ensure that every member of Congress, the US EPA and the California Air Resources Board receives and understands the implications of the Michigan State University study. It will take a while to undue the mischief Mr. Searchinger accomplished with the publication of his indirect land use hypothesis. But perhaps we can ensure that public policy does not follow its ill-conceived premises.

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