Have biofuels caused indirect land use change?
Can improvements in crop production offset the increased demand for crops?
International changes in land use has been a careful consideration in the cost and benefit analysis of biofuel production. Indirect Land Use Change (iLUC) is the term that many experts use in discussion of this topic. The general idea of iLUC is that natural areas across the globe may be converted to cropland to replace crops that are being used to produce biofuels. While this topic seems relatively clear at first glance, it is complicated by factors such as the type of ecosystem that is being converted such as forest and grassland. Therefore assumptions are used in predicting the change in land use. Extensive computer models use different assumptions which result in a wide range of predictions.
A recent article published in Biomass and Bioenergy (2011), authored by Drs. Bruce Dale and Kim Seungdo from Michigan State University, discusses iLUC using historical data and very limited assumptions. This article offers two conclusions:
- “Biofuel production in the United States up through the end of 2007 in all probability has not induced indirect land use change.”
- “A contrary interpretation is that this empirical test simply fails to detect ongoing indirect land use change from the historical data.”
The first conclusion credits the increased crop intensification that may absorb the increased biofuel production and the biofuel expansion may be negligible, which is not resolvable in the data. Continued intensification of crop production may continue to absorb the use of crops and reduce the iLUC in other areas. The second conclusion offers the possibility that the data that is available today is not complete or consistent since it is global in nature. The best available data was used, but was mainly from one source which can be difficult to confirm.
Future efforts to quantify this iLUC will be important in making informed decisions on the scale of biofuel production. Since public policy is an important factor in biofuels production, state and federal agencies and legislators will be critical users of this information. This article will serve as one of several considerations in the development of American biofuel policy.