Researchers try to calculate land-use impact of corn, ethanol

Source: Marc Heller, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2016

It’s an old rule in farming that as the price of a crop rises, people plant more. But at what point do farmers chop down trees to plant corn?

Researchers at the University of Missouri recently asked themselves that question — and the answer remains elusive. A change of as little as a dollar per bushel — a bit more than a 25 percent increase, on average, in the United States, based on current prices — can spur millions of acres of new plantings to replace other crops or, in some cases forests, they said.

The report by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute touches on one of the more sensitive points of land use in the Farm Belt: whether demand for corn ethanol not only boosts corn prices but also drives more land into production, with implications for forests, pesticide use and other environmental issues.

Researchers at FAPRI said a dollar increase in the price of a bushel of corn could translate to 10 million to 11 million additional acres of corn planted in the United States. Globally, an average of 25 million acres might be planted, the report said, citing various studies.

Every billion gallons of ethanol requires about a million additional acres of corn, according to the FAPRI report. In addition, every billion gallons of ethanol production boosts corn prices by 15 cents per bushel, researchers said.

Some of the results of various studies don’t mesh with the reality of widely fluctuating prices in recent years, though, researchers said.

“Corn area does not appear to have moved up or down by nearly such an amount even though prices have risen and fallen by much more than a dollar over the past decade,” the report said.

The report comes as corn prices are forecast to climb over the next year to around $4 per bushel, from about $3.65 per bushel this month. Prices spiked at about $8 per bushel in 2012, and were below $3 a bushel as recently as 2006.

Advocates for ethanol attack indirect land-use change as a myth. Growth Energy, which represents ethanol producers, called the idea an “untested and heavily disputed theory” on its website. A spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a call seeking comment on the FAPRI findings.

Critics of ethanol, such as the organization Smarter Fuel Future, have pushed the idea of indirect land-use changes, saying the renewable fuel standard that supports ethanol use leads growers in developing countries such as Brazil to convert grazing land to bioenergy crops, and rainforest to replace the grazing land.

The FAPRI study and a report from the Department of Agriculture highlighting increased efficiency in ethanol production led Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack yesterday to hail the findings as good news for the alternative fuel.

Researchers at the USDA said the amount of energy required to make ethanol from corn fell by about 5 percent from 2005 to 2010, and that from 1991 to 2010, the amount of direct energy used in corn production declined by 46 percent. Those findings address a historical objection to ethanol: that the amount of energy needed to produce it doesn’t justify mandates to use it in fuel.

The so-called energy balance has the potential to improve thirtyfold using biomass-powered facilities, USDA reported.

Ethanol yields have increased about 10 percent in the last 20 years, meaning less corn is needed to produce every gallon, according to the USDA report, written by the department’s Office of the Chief Economist.

“The bottom line is, today, more energy is being produced from ethanol than is used to produce it, by factors of 2 to 1 nationally and by factors of 4 to 1 in the Midwest,” Vilsack said.