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Issues in Science and Technology

Spring 2009 (volume 25, issue 3, pages 75-84)

In Defense of Biofuels, Done Right

Keith Kline, Virginia H. Dale, Russell Lee, and Paul Leiby
Center for BioEnergy Sustainability
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Despite recent claims to the contrary, example, a bumper crop of media articles
plant-based fuels developed in economically blamed sharply higher food prices worldwide
and environmentally sensible ways can on the production of biofuels, particularly
contribute significantly to the nation’s— ethanol from corn, in the United States.
indeed, the world’s—energy security while Subsequent studies, however, have shown that
providing a host of benefits for many people the increases in food prices were primarily
worldwide. due to many other interacting factors:
Biofuels have been getting bad press, not increased demand in emerging economies,
always for good reasons. Certainly important soaring energy prices, drought in food-
concerns have been raised, but preliminary exporting countries, cutoffs in grain exports
studies have been misinterpreted as a by major suppliers, market-distorting
definitive condemnation of biofuels. One subsidies, a tumbling U.S. dollar, and
recent magazine article, for example, speculation in commodities markets.
illustrated what it called “Ethanol USA” with Although ethanol production indeed
a photo of a car wreck in a corn field. In contributes to higher corn prices, it is not a
particular, many criticisms converge around major factor in world food costs. The U.S.
grain-based biofuel, traditional farming Department of Agriculture (USDA)
practices, and claims of a causal link between calculated that biofuel production contributed
U.S. land use and land-use changes only 5% of the 45% increase in global food
elsewhere, including tropical deforestation. costs that occurred between April 2007 and
Focusing only on such issues, however, April 2008. A Texas A&M University study
distracts attention from a promising concluded that energy prices were the primary
opportunity to invest in domestic energy cause of food price increases, noting that
production using biowastes, fast-growing between January 2006 and January 2008 the
trees, and grasses. When biofuel crops are prices of fuel and fertilizer, both major inputs
grown in appropriate places and under to agricultural production, increased by 37%
sustainable conditions, they offer a host of and 45% respectively. And the International
benefits: reduced fossil fuel use; diversified Monetary Fund has documented that since
fuel supplies; increased employment; their peak in July 2008, oil prices declined by
decreased greenhouse gas emissions; 69% as of December 2008, and global food
enhanced habitat for wildlife; improved soil prices declined by 33% during the same
and water quality; and more stable global land period, while U.S. corn production has
use, thereby reducing pressure to clear new remained at 12 billion bushels a month, one-
land. third of which is still used for ethanol
Not only have many criticisms of biofuels production.
been alarmist, many have been simply In another line of critique, some argue that
inaccurate. In 2007 and early 2008, for the potential benefits of biofuel might be

offset by indirect effects. But large biofuel production will cause large indirect
uncertainties and postulations underlie the land-use changes rely on limited data sets and
debate about indirect land-use effects of unverified assumptions about global land
biofuels on tropical deforestation, the critical cover and land use. Calculations of land-use
implication being that use of U.S. farmland change begin by assuming that global land
for energy crops necessarily causes new land falls into discrete classes suitable for
clearing elsewhere. Concerns are particularly agriculture—cropland, pastures and
strong about the loss of tropical forests and grasslands, and forests—and results depend
natural grasslands. The basic argument is that on estimates for the extent, use, and
biofuel production in the United States sets in productivity of these lands, as well as
motion a necessary scenario of deforestation. presumed future interactions among land-use
According to this argument, if U.S. farm classes. But several major organizations,
production is used for fuel instead of food, including the Food and Agriculture
food prices rise and farmers in developing Organization (FAO), a primary data
countries respond by growing more food. This clearinghouse, have documented significant
response requires clearing new land and inconsistencies surrounding global land cover
burning native vegetation and, hence, estimates. For example, the three most recent
releasing carbon. This “induced FAO Forest Resource Assessments for
deforestation” hypothesis is based on periods ending in 1990, 2000 and 2005,
questionable data and modeling assumptions provide estimates of the world’s total forest
about available land and yields, rather than on cover in 1990 that vary by as much as 470
empirical evidence. The argument assumes million acres, or 21% of the original estimate.
that the supply of previously cleared land is Cropland data face similar discrepancies,
inelastic (that is, agricultural land for and even more challenging issues arise when
expansion is unavailable without new pasture areas are considered. Estimates for
deforestation). It also assumes that land used for crop production range from 3.8
agricultural commodity prices are a major billion acres (calculated by FAO) to 9 billion
driving force behind deforestation and that acres (calculated by the Millennium
yields decline with expansion. The Ecosystem Assessment, an international effort
calculations for carbon emissions assume that spearheaded by the United Nations). In a
land in a stable, natural state is suddenly recent study attempting to reconcile cropland
converted to agriculture as a result of use circa 2000, scientists at the University of
biofuels. Finally, the assertions assume that it Wisconsin-Madison and McGill University
is possible to measure with some precision the estimated there were 3.7 billion acres of
areas that will be cleared in response to these cropland, of which 3.2 billion were actively
price signals. cropped or harvested. Land-use studies
A review of the issues reveals, however, consistently acknowledge serious data
that these assumptions about the availability limitations and uncertainties, noting that a
of land, the role of biofuels in causing majority of global crop lands are constantly
deforestation, and the ability to relate crop shifting the location of cultivation, leaving at
prices to areas of land clearance are unsound. any time large areas fallow or idle that may
Among our findings: not be captured in statistics. Estimates for idle
croplands, prone to confusion with pasture
First, sufficient suitably productive land is and grassland, range from 520 million acres
available for multiple uses, including to 4.9 billion acres globally. The differences
production of biofuels. Assertions that U.S. illustrate one of many uncertainties that

hamper global land-use change calculations. cropland that are now in CRP could be
To put these numbers in perspective, USDA managed for biofuel feedstock production in a
has estimated that in 2007, about 21 million way that maintains positive impacts on
acres were used worldwide to produce biofuel wildlife, water, and land conservation goals,
feedstocks, an area that would occupy but this option was not included among the
somewhere between 0.4% and 4% of the scenarios considered.
world’s estimated idle cropland. Yields are important. They vary widely
Diverse studies of global land cover and from place to place within the United States
potential productivity suggest that anywhere and around the world. USDA projects that
from 600 million to more than 7 billion corn yields will rise by 20 bushels per acre by
additional acres of underutilized rural lands 2017; this represents an increase in corn
are available for expanding rain-fed crop output equivalent to adding 12.5 million acres
production around the world, after excluding compared with 2006, and over triple that area
the 4 billion acres of cropland currently in compared with average yields in many less
use, as well as the world’s supply of closed developed nations. And there is the possibility
forests, nature reserves, and urban lands. that yields will increase more quickly than
Hence, at a global scale, land per se is not an projected in the USDA baseline, as seed
immediate limitation for agriculture and companies aim to exceed 200 bushels per acre
biofuels. by 2020. The potential to increase yields in
In the United States, the federal developing countries offers tremendous
government, through the multiagency opportunities to improve welfare and expand
Biomass Research and Development Initiative production while reducing or maintaining the
(BRDI), has examined the land and market area harvested. These improvements are
implications for reaching the nation’s biofuel consistent with U.S. trends during the past
target, which calls for producing 36 billion half century showing agricultural output
gallons by 2022. BRDI estimated that a slight growth averaging 2% per year while cropland
net reduction in total U.S. active cropland use fell by an average of 0.7% per year. Even
area would result by 2022 in most scenarios, without large yield increases, cropland
when compared with a scenario developed requirements to meet biofuel production
from USDA’s so-called “baseline” targets may not be nearly as great as assumed.
projections. BRDI also found that growing Concerns over induced deforestation are
biofuel crops efficiently in the United States based on a theory of land displacement that is
would require shifts in the intensity of use of not supported by data. U.S. ethanol
about 5% of pasture lands to more intensive production shot up by more than 3 billion
hay, forage, and bioenergy crops (25 million gallons (150%) between 2001 and 2006, and
out of 456 million acres) in order to corn production increased 11%, while total
accommodate dedicated energy crops, along U.S. harvested cropland fell by about 2% in
with using a combination of wastes, forest the same period. Indeed, the harvested area
residues, and crop residues. BRDI’s estimate for “coarse grains” fell by 4% as corn, with an
assumes that the total area allocated to average yield of 150 bushels per acre,
USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program replaced other feed grains such as sorghum
(CRP) remains constant at about 33 million (averaging 60 bushels per acre). Such
acres but allows about 3 million acres of the statistics defy modeling projections by
CRP land on high-quality soils in the Midwest demonstrating an ability to supply feedstock
to be offset by new CRP additions in other to a burgeoning ethanol industry while
regions. In practice, additional areas of former simultaneously maintaining exports and using

substantially less land. So although models results show that it is critical to improve
may assume that increased use of U.S. land governance, land tenure, incomes, and
for biofuels will lead to more land being security to slow the pace of new land
cleared for agriculture in other parts of the conversion in these frontier regions.
world, evidence is lacking to support those Selected studies based on interpretations of
claims. satellite imagery have been used to support
the claims that U.S. biofuels induce
Second, there is little evidence that biofuels deforestation in the Amazon, but satellite
cause deforestation, and much evidence for images cannot be used to determine causes of
alternative causes. Recent scientific papers land-use change. In practice, deforestation is a
that blame biofuels for deforestation are based site-specific process. How it is perceived will
on models that presume new land conversion vary greatly by site and also by the temporal
can be simulated as a predominantly market- and spatial lens through which it is observed.
driven choice. The models assume land is a Cause-and-effect relationships are complex,
privately owned asset managed in response to and the many small changes that enable larger
global price signals within a stable rule-based future conversion cannot be captured from
economy — perhaps a reasonable assumption satellite imagery. Although it is possible to
for developed nations. classify an image to show that forest in one
However, this scenario is far from the period changed to cropland in another,
reality in the smoke-filled frontier zones of cataloguing changes in discrete classes over
deforestation in less developed countries, time does not explain why these changes
where the models assume biofuel-induced occur. Most studies asserting that the
land conversion takes place. The regions of production and use of biofuels cause tropical
the world that are experiencing first-time land deforestation point to land cover at some
conversion are characterized by market point after large-scale forest degradation and
isolation, lawlessness, insecurity, instability, clearing have taken place. But the key events
and lack of land tenure. And nearly all of the leading to primary conversion of forests often
forests are publicly owned. Indeed, land- proceed for decades before they can be
clearing is a key step in a long process of detected by satellite imagery. The imagery
trying to stake a claim for eventual tenure. A does not show how the forest was used to
cycle involving incremental degradation, sustain livelihoods prior to conversion, nor
repeated and extensive fires, and shifting the degrees of continual degradation that
small plots for subsistence tends to occur long occurred over time before the classification
before any consideration of crop choices changed. When remote sensing is supported
influenced by global market prices. by a ground-truth process, it typically
The causes of deforestation have been attempts to narrow the uncertainties of land-
extensively studied, and it is clear from the cover classifications rather than research the
empirical evidence that forces other than history of occupation, prior and current use,
biofuel use are responsible for the trends of and the forces behind the land-use decisions
increasing forest loss in the tropics. Numerous that led to the current land cover.
case studies document that the factors driving First-time conversion is enabled by
deforestation are a complex expression of political, as well as physical, access.
cultural, technological, biophysical, political, Southeast Asia provides one example where
economic, and demographic interactions. forest conversion has been facilitated by
Solutions and measures to slow deforestation political access, which can include such
have also been analyzed and tested, and the diverse things as government-sponsored

development and colonization programs in creation of extensive cattle ranches. For
previously undisturbed areas and the centuries, disenfranchised groups have been
distribution of large timber and mineral pushed into the forests and marginal lands
concessions and land allotments to friends, where they do what they can to survive. This
families, and sponsors of people in power. settlement process often includes serving as
Critics have raised valid concerns about high low-cost labor to clear land for the next wave
rates of deforestation in the region, and they of better-connected colonists. Unless
often point an accusing finger at palm oil and significant structural changes occur to remove
biofuels. or modify enabling factors, the forest clearing
Palm oil has been produced in the region that was occurring before this decade is
since 1911, and plantation expansion boomed expected to continue along predictable paths.
in the 1970s with growth rates of more than Testing the hypothesis that U.S. biofuel
20% per year. Biodiesel represents a tiny policy causes deforestation elsewhere
fraction of palm oil consumption. In 2008, depends on models that can incorporate the
less than 2% of crude palm oil output was processes underlying initial land-use change.
processed for biofuel in Indonesia and Current models attempt to predict future land-
Malaysia, the world’s largest producers and use change based on changes in commodity
exporters. Based on land-cover statistics prices. As conceived thus far, the
alone, it is impossible to determine the degree computational general equilibrium models
of attribution that oil palm may share with designed for economic trade do not
other causes of forest conversion in Southeast adequately incorporate the processes of land-
Asia. What is clear is that oil palm is not the use change. Although crop prices may
only factor, and that palm plantations are influence short-term land-use decisions, they
established after a process of degradation and are not a dominant factor in global patterns of
deforestation has transpired. Deforestation first-time conversion, the land clearing of
data may offer a tool for estimating the chief concern in relating biofuels to
ceiling for attribution, however. In Indonesia, deforestation. The highest deforestation rates
for example, 28.1 million hectares were observed and estimated globally occurred in
deforested between 1990 and 2005, and oil the 1990s. During that period, there was a
palm expansion in those areas was estimated surplus of commodities on world markets and
to be between 1.7 million and 3 million consistently depressed prices.
hectares, or between 6% and 10% of the
forest loss, during the same period. Third, many studies omit the larger problem
Initial clearing in the tropics is often driven of widespread global mismanagement of land.
more by waves of illegitimate land The recent arguments focusing on the
speculation than agricultural production. In possible deforestation attributable to biofuels
many Latin American frontier zones, if there use idealized representations of crop and land
is native forest on the land, it is up for grabs, markets, omitting what may be larger issues
as there is no legal tenure of the land. The of concern. Clearly, the causes of global
majority of land clearing in the Amazon has deforestation are complex and are not driven
been blamed on livestock because, in part, merely by a single crop market. Additionally,
there is no alternative for classifying the land mismanagement, involving both initial
recent clearings and, in part, because land clearing and maintaining previously cleared
holders must keep it “in production” to land, is widespread and leads to a process of
maintain claims and avoid invasions. The soil degradation and environmental damage
result has been the frequent burning and the that is especially prevalent in the frontier

zones. Reports by the FAO and the reflecting the progressive degradation that
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment describe occurs (often over decades) prior to and
the environmental consequences of repeated independent of agriculture market signals for
fires in these areas. Estimates of global land use, as well as changes in the frequency
burning vary annually, ranging from 490 and extent of fire in areas that biofuels help
million to 980 million acres per year between bring into more stable market economies, then
2000 and 2004. The vast majority of fires in the resulting carbon emission estimates would
the tropics occur in Africa and the Amazon in be worlds apart.
what were previously cleared, nonforest Brazil provides a good case in point,
lands. In a detailed study, the Amazon because it holds the globe’s largest remaining
Institute of Environmental Research and area of tropical forests, is the world’s second-
Woods Hole Research Center found that 73% largest producer of biofuel (after the United
of burned area in the Amazon was on States), and is the world’s leading supplier of
previously cleared land, and that was during biofuel for global trade. Brazil also has
the 1990s, when overall deforestation rates relatively low production costs and a growing
were high. focus on environmental stewardship. As a
Fire is the cheapest and easiest tool matter of policy, the Brazilian government
supporting shifting subsistence cultivation. has supported the development of biofuels
Repeated and extensive burning are since launching a National Ethanol Program
manifestations of the lack of tenure, lack of called Proálcool, in 1975. Brazil’s ethanol
access to markets, and severe poverty in these industry began its current phase of growth
areas. When people or communities have little after Proálcool was phased-out in 1999 and
or no assets to protect from fire and no the government’s role shifted from subsidies
incentive to invest in more sustainable and regulations toward increased
production, they also have no reason to limit collaboration with the private sector in
the extent of burning. The repeated fires research and development. The government
modify ecosystem structure, penetrate ever helps stabilize markets by supporting variable
deeper into forest margins, affect large areas blending rates of ethanol with gasoline and
of understory vegetation (which is not planning for industry expansion, pipelines,
detected by remote sensing), and take an ever ports, and logistics. The government also
greater cumulative toil on soil quality and its facilitates access to global markets; develops
ability to sequester carbon. Profitable biofuel improved varieties of sugarcane, harvest
markets, by contributing to improved equipment, and conversion; and supports
incentives to grow cash crops, could reduce improvements in environmental performance.
the use of fire and the pressures on the New sugarcane fields in Brazil nearly
agricultural frontier. Biofuels done right, with always replace pasture land or less valuable
attention to best practices for sustained crops and are concentrated around production
production, can make significant facilities in the developed southeastern
contributions to social and economic region, far from the Amazon. Nearly all
development as well as environmental production is rain-fed and relies on low input
protection. rates for fertilizers and agrochemicals,
Furthermore, current literature calculates compared with other major crops. New
the impacts from an assumed agricultural projects are reviewed under the Brazilian
expansion by attributing the carbon emissions legal framework of Environmental Impact
from clearing intact ecosystems to biofuels. If Assessment and Environmental Licensing.
emission analyses consider empirical data Together, these policies have contributed to

restoration or protection of reserves and 30% of those in North America. Hence,
riparian areas and increased forest cover, in policies supporting biofuel production may
tandem with an expansion of sugarcane actually help stop the extensive slash-and-
production in the most important producing burn agricultural cycle that contributes to
state, Sao Paulo. greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, land
Yet natural forest in Brazil is being lost, degradation, and a lifestyle that fails to
with nearly 37 million acres lost between May support farmers and their families.
2000 and August 2006, and a total of 150 Biofuels alone are not the solution,
million acres lost since 1970. Some observers however. Governments in the United States
have suggested that the increase in U.S. corn and elsewhere will have to develop and
production for biofuel led to reduced soybean support a number of programs designed to
output and higher soybean prices, and that support sustainable development. The
these changes led, in turn, to new operation and rules of such programs must be
deforestation in Brazil. However, total transparent, so that everyone can understand
deforestation rates in Brazil appear to fall in them and see that fair play is ensured. Among
tandem with rising soybean prices. This co- other attributes, the programs must offer
occurrence illustrates a lack of connection economic incentives for sustainable
between commodity prices and initial land production, and they must provide for secure
clearing. This phenomenon has been observed land tenure and participatory land-use
around the globe and suggests an alternate planning. In this regard, pilot biofuel projects
hypothesis: Higher global commodity prices in Africa and Brazil are showing promise in
focus production and investment where it can addressing the vexing and difficult challenges
be used most efficiently, in the plentiful of sustainable land use and development.
previously cleared and underutilized lands Biofuels also are uniting diverse stakeholders
around the world. In times of falling prices in a global movement to develop
and incomes, people return to forest frontiers, sustainability metrics and certification
with all of their characteristic tribulations, for methods applicable to the broader agricultural
lack of better options. sector.
Given a priority to protect biodiversity and
The promise of sustainable biofuels ecosystem services, it is important to further
With the right policy framework, cellulosic explore the drivers for conversion of land at
biofuel crops could offer an alternative that the frontier and to consider the effects,
diversifies and boosts rural incomes based on positive and negative, that U.S. biofuel
perennials. Such a scenario would create policies could have in these areas. This means
incentives to reduce intentional burning that it is critical to distinguish between valid
currently affects millions of acres worldwide concerns calling for caution and alarmist
each year. Perennial biofuel crops can help criticisms that attribute complex problems
stabilize land cover, enhance soil carbon solely to biofuels.
sequestration, provide habitat to support Still, based on the analyses that we and
biodiversity, and improve soil and water others have done, we believe that biofuels,
quality. Furthermore, pressure to clear new developed in an economically and
land is reduced via improved incomes and environmentally sensible way, can contribute
yields. Developing countries have huge significantly to the nation’s—indeed, the
opportunities to increase crop yield and world’s—energy security while providing a
thereby grow more food on less land, given host of benefits for many people in many
that cereal yields in less developed nations are regions.

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Keith Kline (, Virginia H. use and land-cover change: Moving beyond
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“Increasing feedstock production for R.M. Cruse; C.S. Duke; P.M. Fearnside,
biofuels: economic drivers, environmental R.F. Follett; H.K. Gibbs, J. Goldemberg, D.
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A. Contreras-Hermosilla (2007). “The Wiens, W.W. Wilhelm, (2008). Sustainable
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(CIFOR Occasional Paper 30, Center for
International Forestry Research, Bogor,
Indonesia, 2000). Key quotes:
files/OccPapers/OP-030.pdf There is little evidence that biofuels cause
S. Fritz and Linda See, (2008). “Identifying deforestation, and much evidence for
and quantifying uncertainty and spatial alternative causes.
disagreement in the comparison of Global Perennial biofuel crops can help stabilize
Land Cover for different applications.” land cover, enhance soil carbon
Global Change Biology (2008) 14, 1057– sequestration, provide habitat to support
1075. biodiversity, and improve soil and water
A. Grainger, (2008). Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. quality.
USA; “Difficulties in tracking the long-term Pilot biofuel projects in Africa and Brazil are
global trend in tropical forest area” PNAS showing promise in addressing the
105, 818-823. challenges of sustainable land use and
K.L. Kline and V.H. Dale, (2008). Biofuels: development.
Effects on land and fire. Science 321:199-