Flapping Butterfly Wings and the Land Use Debate

We all want to save the planet. Even the most cynical of global warming critics is often in favor of taking rational steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle the challenges posed by changes in our climate.

But, in an all-too-predictable outcome, political agendas, dubious motives, questionable science, wild rhetoric, and unrealistic expectations have come to dominate the discussion about meaningful and practical responses to climate change and the issue of so-called "indirect land use changes" that result from expanded use of crops and other biomass for the production of cleaner, renewable fuels.

Two issues define the land use debate. There are domestic land use changes that are fairly easy to quantify (i.e. cotton fields or Conservation Reserve Program plots converted to corn for ethanol production). In these cases, we can assess the impacts of the biofuel produced from these converted lands with relative confidence. Domestic land use change as a result of biofuel production is a legitimate subject for environmental analysis. In contrast, international indirect land use change presumably caused by biofuel production is tenuous, uncertain and highly speculative.

At its core, the international indirect land use change (ILUC) argument goes like this -- the decision to produce a gallon of ethanol in the United States, for example, would divert grain from the food and feed markets and thus force a farmer in another part of the world to clear rainforests or plow virgin land to replace the grain used to produce that gallon of ethanol thousands of miles away in the U.S. The resulting release of carbon from this virgin land, so the argument goes, is so great that it makes ethanol worse in terms of carbon emissions than oil. Basically, the notion of indirect land use change is a questionable version of the butterfly effect, the theory that the flapping of a butterfly's wings might create microscopic changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado in a location halfway around the world.

In the biofuels world, this is the issue that could determine the future of the industry in the U.S. and around the world. Forget the smoke and mirrors of the food versus fuel façade or the misleading faux debate about whether ethanol contains more energy than it took to produce. Improper assessment of international indirect land use impacts of biofuels could directly impact the growth of the industry and its utility in reducing oil dependence and consumption around the globe.

The science of international indirect land use change is in its infancy and consensus among those most knowledgeable about the issue is elusive to say the least. Such uncertainty stems from the fact that a multitude of factors influence land use decisions for which no models or analytical tools exist that can capture these complex interactions.

To properly assess this issue, a better understanding of American ethanol production and its demands of agriculture is required. The impressive productivity advancements of American farmers have largely mitigated the need for additional arable acres to be brought into production here in the U.S. In fact, it is estimated that the entire land area needed to supply the grain required by the American ethanol industry to produce 15 billion gallons of ethanol in 2015 would be less than 1% of the total cropland around the world -- or, an area roughly the size of West Virginia.

It also must be understood that land exists around the globe, should it be needed, that can be responsibly and sustainably brought into agricultural production. A lot of land, in fact. A team of researchers from Stanford University estimates that an area of abandoned agricultural land half the size of the continental U.S. could be brought into production with minimal impact on the environment.

Finally, a full accounting is needed of the dramatic advancements and ongoing innovations in farming practices along with ethanol production technologies that are making both industries even greener. Less water, less natural gas and fewer inputs as a whole today produce more ethanol and more livestock feed at existing ethanol facilities. The livestock feed component is particularly important, as one-third of every bushel of grain used in ethanol production is returned to livestock markets in the form of enhanced, higher-protein feed. In addition, new technologies are on the doorstep that will turn agriculture waste products, municipal solid waste, and dedicated energy crops into clean ethanol and other renewable fuels.

Understanding international land use decisions is complex, but the bottom line here is simple. The growth of the American ethanol industry has, at most, a marginal impact on the land use decisions of farmers around the world. If the extremes are allowed to prevail on this debate and squash the biofuel industry, the consequences for other renewable technologies would be dire. And the result would be a return to square one -- increased oil dependence, the very dependence responsible for the climate problems biofuels are helping to solve.