Evidence of Indirect Land Use Change Lacking

MSU study results testify to efficient agricultural practices
By Erin Voegele | June 17, 2011

According to the theory of indirect land use change, any acre of land used to produce biofuel feedstocks in the U.S. causes additional land in other parts of the world to be brought into agricultural production for food and feed. A study undertaken by Michigan State University scientists Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale has failed to find evidence to support this theory.

To complete the study, Dale says his team looked back at agricultural data to see if there was any evidence of indirect land use changes resulting from the buildup of the biofuels industry through 2007. “We found that there was not,” he says.

“What we did was look back in the patterns of trading corn and soybeans between the United States and our various grain trading partners, and their use of their own land,” Dale says. The team attempted to find statistical evidence that the U.S. biofuel industry actually caused indirect land use change. “We determined there was no such evidence,” Dale says. “If indirect land use change has actually occurred through 2007, you can’t tell it from the data.”

According to Dale, the results of the study can be seen as a commentary on how efficient U.S. agriculture has become. “The idea for indirect land use change is that new acreage will get cleared to replace acreage that is devoted to biofuels production,” he says. “That might happen, but the fact that you can’t observe it [in the data] means that agriculture is actually quite remarkably productive and it keeps increasing the output on the same amount of acreage.” In other words, it appears that demand for biofuels feedstock has been soaked by existing acreage and doesn’t require new acreage at current production levels. “I think that is kind of remarkable,” Dale says.

Dale’s study focused on first-generation biofuels. However, as second-generation biofuel and biochemical production ramps up, it’s possible the same claims will be made about dedicated energy crops. “The data we used [in the study] is empirical data,” Dale says. “It’s evidence from the literature. Because second-generation biofuel volumes are so small, we wouldn’t expect them to have any indirect land use change impact yet.” In order to make comparable measurements for second-generation biofuels, the researchers would need to wait until production ramps up significantly and the relevant data is available.  —Erin Voegele