Biodiesel Has a Critical Role in Preserving Farmland and Preventing Detrimental Land Use Change
Land use change is an issue often associated with the biofuels boom. For a brief period, the criticism of biofuels policy was that increasing the value of farm commodities might create economic incentives for farmers all around the world to grow more food commodities. The ever-improving quantification of international, indirect land use change is now showing that we can meet our goals for biodiesel production, and encourage more farmers to produce more food around the world, while still reducing greenhouse gases relative to sole reliance on fossil fuels.
Domestically, the story is a little different. While biodiesel helps make farming more economically sustainable in the U.S., that economic benefit serves only to keep existing farmland in production and does not drive expansion beyond the historical footprint of row crop agriculture. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) strictly prohibits the conversion of new lands for producing renewable fuels. That new federal law is somewhat redundant, because existing laws, regulations, and basic economic principles already result in restraining U.S. agriculture to its historical footprint. Nevertheless, as a critical part of implementing the federal RFS, the USDA and USEPA are monitoring land use change to ensure that crop acreage does not exceed historical benchmark acres.
Federal requirements administered through the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency provide many barriers to farmers who wish to expand production of commodity crops onto lands that do not have a historical record of crop production. Some of these restrictions are known as the Sodbuster and Swamp Buster provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985. Farmers ignoring these requirements forfeit the benefit of USDA programs for crop assistance, and are also unlikely to receive crop insurance on new ground. These factors combine so that the only “new” cropland that can be put into production is in fact old cropland that had been temporarily set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or similar retirement programs.
More than once, I’ve heard concern expressed that biofuels could be the cause of dwindling CRP acreage. The truth is, CRP enrollment is dictated by funding in the Farm Bill. The future size of CRP depends upon a pending farm bill. The 2008 Farm Bill reduced CRP enrollment by 7.2 million acres from the 2002 Farm Bill. So 7.2 million acres are being thrown out of the program because of budget reductions in the farm bill. This has nothing to do with biofuels.
Personally, I am a big fan of CRP and the other conservation programs administered by the USDA and local authorities. I married into a family of commercial bee keepers. Bees love CRP acres and the forages planted by the NRCS in the buffer areas around prime cropland. In college, I volunteered weekly to work at what was then called the Soil Conservation Service to help local farmers enroll in conservation programs. In my previous employment with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, I developed and implemented a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that added 50,000 acres to long-term CRP in Missouri. In that experience, I did come face to face with one criticism of CRP, and that was when too much production land was set aside in one area, it has a considerable negative affect on the local community. The landowner continues to receive rental payments for CRP acreage, but the rest of the service industry offering seed, equipment, and services for that ground are suddenly stripped of their revenue source. This has a rippling affect through the local communities and all local jobs are interdependent on the money circulating in small rural communities. Fortunately, USDA has a priority system in place that serves to release the most productive and appropriate farm ground first and to maintain the most ecologically sensitive areas in some form of conservation practice.
The annual amount of acres planted to row crops varies each year and actually has less to do with CRP enrollment than it has to do with competitive pricing of rotation crops that can be grown on the same ground. In the Midwest a common rotation occurs between corn and soybeans. Farmers switch back and forth between these two crops to replenish nutrients in the soil, to disturb pest infestations, and in response to the relative profit for producing an acre of soybeans or an acre of corn. Most of the annual increase in crop acres for a specific variety is nothing more than rotation from one crop to another. We’ve also seen corn and soy replace acres that were formerly planted to crops like wheat or cotton. Global economics and declining U.S. profits are reasons for decreasing acres of the later.
Biofuels are generating economic benefits to farming communities. A major reason is that less of their hard-earned money has to be exported to purchase imported energy. Increased farm commodity prices are also part of that boost. The U.S. has a balanced approach in its Renewable Fuel Standard that promotes biofuels that can be produced from both corn and soybeans (not to mention Canola, sorghum, and a laundry list of others). This balanced approach helps maintain parity in the relative profit margin for each crop and helps maintain a consistent and diverse agricultural sector.
As part of developing the overall volume goals for the RFS, the USDA estimated the crop expansion that would be necessary to meet the renewable fuel mandates of the RFS. This includes the entire 15 billion gallon requirement for corn ethanol. In 2009, the USDA estimated expansion in total crop acres, driven by ethanol production, will be less than 5 million acres from the 2008 baseline. Note: this is far less than the 7.2 million acres that are coming out of CRP due to Farm Bill budget reductions. USDA also reports that in 2007, 93.5 million acres of cropland were planted to corn. That is the highest level of corn acreage since 1944. The 2008 baseline, upon which the expansion is predicted, consisted of only 86 million acres. Again, the 5 million acre expansion is less than the decline in acreage between 2007 and 2008 (7.5 million acres). Therefore, cropland could expand 5 million acres and still be within the maximum area planted in crops prior to the RFS2, and have no pressure on existing CRP acres. With these numbers in perspective, one has to conclude that biofuel production in the US is not a driving factor for CRP reduction.
There is a more troubling statistic out there. The American Farmland Trust says that 2 acres of farmland are lost to development every minute. This loss of valuable farmland is due to the economic fact that farm incomes cannot compete with economic drivers to build shopping malls and subdivision.
It is safe to conclude from these facts that biofuels are not causing land use change or conversion of grassland. Funding for the CRP acreage is key to setting aside grassland habitat. Fortunately, when land is kicked out of CRP, biofuels are helping farming and food production compete economically with development. Otherwise, these lands might be lost under concrete rather than alternating between crops and grassland.
Don Scott serves as the Director of Sustainability for the National Biodiesel Board.