EPA report cites growing corn, soy acreage

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, July 6, 2018

Growing use of biofuels may be speeding the conversion of noncropland to corn and soybean production — but the extent isn’t clear, EPA said in a report on the impact of biofuel mandates.

In its triennial report on biofuels and the environment, EPA cited increases in acreage devoted to corn and soybeans and loss of grassland in some regions, especially in the Northern Plains.

But the agency said more research is needed to determine how much land conversion is attributable to biofuels versus other uses of those crops, which are major biofuel feedstocks as well as food sources.

The report, released late Friday, was four years overdue and the focus of pressure from congressional offices opposed to expanding ethanol mandates in the renewable fuel standard.

EPA said corn acreage increased from an average of 80 million acres between 2000 and 2007 to 90 million acres between 2007 and 2016. Soybean acreage grew from around 75 million acres between 2000 and 2006 to 83 million acres between 2014 and 2016, the report said.

And while total cropland shrank — mainly as a result of a decline in cropland pasture — land devoted to crop production increased by 5 million acres from 2007 to 2012, the agency said.

The report also shed additional light on earlier work by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, finding that those studies may have underestimated the amount of land converted from nonagricultural use.

Aided by aerial photography in regions within 50 to 100 miles of a biorefinery, researchers found that as much as 4.2 million acres was converted from 2008 to 2012.

EPA said it found a “consistent signal emerging” from various studies that between 4 million and 7.8 million acres has been converted to actively managed cropland — but that conversions since 2012 are unknown.

As land is converted, habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife can be lost, the report said.

Additional evidence should emerge in the next three years, EPA said, as data are updated and new research is conducted.

Interest groups opposed to, or in support of, ethanol mandates took contrasting views of the report.

“Overall, they have finally acknowledged that biofuels are having an impact on the environment, and a negative impact,” said David DeGennaro, agriculture policy specialist with the National Wildlife Federation.

The Renewable Fuels Association criticized EPA for not using more recent information, including work that would indicate reductions in greenhouse gases. The RFA said the renewable fuel standard has helped save 354 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since its implementation in the mid-2000s.

“EPA needs to go back to the drawing board on this report, as it fails to incorporate the most up-do-date information on the environmental benefits of ethanol and the RFS,” said RFA President and CEO Bob Dinneen in a statement.

Mighty Earth, an environmental group, said the report “echoes years of evidence and calls by the environmental community to reform our use of food-based biofuels. More corn, soy, palm and other food-based biofuels will only worsen these environmental problems, and it’s clearly the wrong course to consider maintaining or increasing consumption.”