Biodiesel Has a Critical Role in Preserving Farmland and Preventing Detrimental Land Use Change

Posted on February 21st, 2013

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.

farmland_land_use_body_image_01_300x453Biofuels 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.


  1. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    I’m a rural Iowa landowner, and I saw a summary of a recent national grassland conversion study. It specifically states that a significant amount of pasture is being converted to rowcrops. Pasture is not CRP, and pastures are sometimes original native prairie areas. Friends have sent a few photos and anecdotes about woodlands and pasture areas, not CRP land, being converted to rowcrops in Iowa. I’ve heard that more of that is happening in some other states.

    There is a threat of more conversion of permanent vegetation to rowcrops in Iowa because of the recent revision of the Corn Suitablity Rating system here. Some counties tax land according to CSR numbers, even if the land is actually in pasture or woodland. Some landowners are saying that if they are going to be taxed as if they were growing rowcrops, they will start growing rowcrops, even if the land has not been rowcropped before.

    Regardless of the extent to which biodiesel is to blame, the conversion of some non-CRP grasslands and woodlands to rowcrops is definitely happening, as is massive CRP conversion. And all this conversion has serious implications for soil, water, and wildlife. With the probable disappearance of conservation compliance in the next Farm Bill, thanks largely to lobbying by powerful agribusiness groups that want to enjoy lots of taxpayer money without having to do any conservation in return, we are looking at a potential conservation catastrophe. Many soil conservation professionals are very worried.

    In addition, the “footprint” of agriculture is expanding in other ways. More and more tile is being added to existing rowcrop fields, and that affects water pollution levels. The Dead Zone in the Gulf is part of agriculture’s “footprint.”

    Of course there are rowcrop farmers who are doing outstanding conservation work. Many other farmers are doing the minimum, however, and the fundamental problem is that our current conventional rowcrop system is very leaky, shedding large amounts of topsoil and nutrients. It is not sustainable, and if we want our descendents to have the same options and opportunities we have, that system has to change.

  2. Don Scott says:

    I commend you for being aware of what is going on in your local farming community and for being concerned about the environmental and economic impacts. We need more awareness, and we need investment and policy based on accurate science. Farmers have a track record of improving efficiency and conservation methods that is unmatched by any other industry. Farmer-organizations, USDA, and the land grant universities continue make improvements that benefit farmers and the environment. There may always be room for improvement. The US ag industry has proven they are rapid adopters of the best technology and policies at their disposal.

    Biodiesel helps. Biodiesel provides a clean-burning, domestically produced fuel than can be used by farmers; and the economic benefits helps farmers implement the best practices for environmental protection. Biodiesel is not causing expansion of agricultural acres. In fact, federal law limits biodiesel production to historical acres.

    Anecdotal observations and studies based only on satellite imagery can be misleading. The best way to determine the impact of biofuels is to study biofuels, specifically. Oak Ridge National Laboratory concludes that the environmental impacts of renewable fuel production are lower than those of petroleum. Their new study available at also says that renewable fuel mandates have resulted in “minimal land-use change”. This is consistent with the Univ. of Illinois research that found there is more than enough farmland available to meet our goals for energy independence. That paper is online at .

    I often hear that farms are to blame for the Gulf hypoxia. Those who want to blame farmers seem to forget there are more than 80 million people living, working and doing their business (if you know what I mean) in the same watershed. Acre per acre, the nutrient runoff from farms is much lower than the nutrient runoff from our homes and cities. This is not to say that we don’t need solutions. This is merely to remind us that we are all to blame. It is unfair to blame the farmers that feed us, when they are doing the best they can.

  3. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Don Scott, thank you for the opportunity for discussion on this blog. I can only speak for Iowa. But here, the research and data are clear. Farming is responsible for most of the nutrient pollution that moves from Iowa to the Gulf.

    That is not to say that other sources are not significant. They are. But many conservationists in Iowa are understandably unhappy that the new Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is going to require residents of towns and cities to pay for sewage treatment upgrades in order to reduce nutrient pollution, while not requiring farmers to do anything, even though agriculture is causing the majority of the nutrient problem.

    All nutrient reduction on farms will be voluntary-only. And the Strategy provides no convincing evidence that the voluntary-only approach will work any better in the future than it has for the past few decades.

    As for innovation, the rapid adoption you mentioned does not always extend to conservation. I was told that the respected Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll recently indicated that more than half of Iowa farmers spent zero dollars on conservation during the last decade, and that another 20% spent less than $5,000. At that rate, even with some farmers doing really outstanding conservaton, solving the hypoxia problem would take centuries.

    I agree that we are all to blame, all of us, and that we all need to improve. And the general public needs to recognize and understand that we will all need to help pay for better agricultural conservation.

    But one obstacle to accomplishing that is that the general public, at least in Iowa, is continually being told, especially by some agricultural groups, that agriculture is already doing a wonderful job of protecting soil and water.

    We are being told that even though the average row-cropped acre in Iowa is losing topsoil ten times as fast as it can be replaced. We are being told that even though one soil expert has called Iowa the world’s largest, shallowest strip mine. And we are being told that even though Iowa has hundreds of officially-impaired lakes and rivers, and rowcrop farming is the single biggest reason why.

    As the old saying goes, we can’t change what we won’t acknowledge. Of course biodiesel production is not to blame for all this. But as long as biodiesel is made from soybeans, I don’t see how it can be unlinked from the environmental impacts of conventional soybean production.

    As for land use changes, I’ve come across several references to non-CRP grassland conversion in the past month. One came from the Leopold Institute, which is part of Iowa State University. Below is the link. The problem does exist, though certainly and obviously it involves corn as well as soybeans.

  4. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    As an update, there is an act in Congress now called the Protect Our Prairies Act (H.R. 686). This bill is specifically intended to protect virgin prairies from being plowed up for conversion to rowcrops by reducing crop insurance for the first four years on newly-broken native sod or grasslands.

    The reason this Act has been introduced in Congress is because virgin prairies ARE being plowed up for conversion to rowcrops. This is not an imaginary problem.

  5. Don Scott says:

    Again, just because agriculture has the biggest footprint on the land in Iowa, doesn’t mean farming is the biggest problem. The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) reported that urban or developed land contributes two times the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous to runoff as compared to agricultural land. This refers to non-point source pollution. This does not include point source pollution such as sewage treatment plants that may not be meeting current discharge standards.

    The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll reports that 46% of the 1,276 farmers polled are currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. To a lesser extent, respondents also reported participation in the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, Wetland Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, and Resource Enhancement and Protection programs. It’s not really a surprise that poll respondents didn’t spend a lot of money on conservation. Most farmers and conservation experts agree that conservation doesn’t cost, it pays.

    29% of the farmers in that polled said they would implement more conservation practices if more funding were available. Future funding may hang in the balance of the new Farm Bill. Prior Farm Bills have supported significant investments in conservation. Between 2002 and 2005 resource investment through NRCS topped $5 billion in financial and technical assistance in soil quality, water quality, and water management.

    These investments have produced real dividends for conservation. In the last 30 years sheet, rill, and wind erosion has dropped by 40%. The amount of cropland managed to improve soil organic matter increased by 46 million acres. This saved over 1.2 billion tons of soil per year. These savings were realized through conservation compliance and Sod Buster provisions of the Farm Bill. Well over 100 million acres have been placed into conservation tillage with added acres in no-till.

    Farmers have installed more than 6 million acres of buffers to help protect water quality. The erosion reductions on private lands produced benefits to water-based recreation of $373 million.

    Participation in USDA farm programs is entirely voluntary, but participation comes with mandatory requirements for conservation. Participation is very high. Nearly 56 million acres are enrolled in some form of applied conservation practices, nationwide. If we look at the leading commodity producing states of Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri, more than 300,000 farms were enrolled in at least one voluntary USDA program with mandatory conservation requirements in 2009. This is a participation rate of 98%, 85%, and 73% for those states respectively. This data reported by the Farm Service Agency is much more comprehensive than the informal rural life poll.

  6. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    When you referred to Iowa nutrient pollution, were you perhaps referring to the average amount of nutrient pollution generated per acre? If so, there are far fewer developed acres than agricultural acres in this state.

    Otherwise, I find your reference to Iowa extremely puzzling. I have attended numerous meetings and discussions about nutrient pollution here in the past few years, and it is now acknowledged by everyone, including farm organizations, that in Iowa, agriculture is by far the biggest source of nutrient pollution. The research results are so clear that the large role of agriculture isn’t even being debated anymore. Perhaps you are thinking of other states?

    The Director of the Des Moines Water Works, which supplies drinking water to half a million people, recently pointed out on television that his facility has recently been close to being out of compliance with federal nitrate standards for drinking water. He pointed out that the primary reason is farming practices upstream. He called for numerical stardards for waterways and required nutrient reduction for agriculture. He also pointed out the absurdity of requiring nutrient pollution reduction from urban sources while not requiring nutrient pollution reduction from agriculture when agriculture is the biggest source of the problem.

    Below is an AP story reporting just the kind of land-use change that I and friends are seeing in rural Iowa. Meanwhile, I’m hearing from friends in NRCS that they know some farmers are out of compliance with their conservation plans, but Iowa county offices are so short-staffed that it’s challenging to do field checks and enforcement.

    Iowa water quality is getting worse, with more waterways and lakes being added recently to the officially-impaired list. The average Iowa cropland acre loses more than five tons of topsoil per year, according to the USDA, and because rain events have been increasing in severity, many acres experience much more erosion.

    Meanwhile, the newest research indicates that the actual replacement rate for topsoil is less than half a ton per acre per year. So it would seem that Iowa is losing topsoil at least ten times as fast as it can be replaced. In addition, one soil expert at a recent meeting pointed out that soil organic content and structure have become seriously degraded since the prairies were plowed and that soil degradation is just as serious a problem as soil erosion. Bad soil structure is one of the reasons that so much rainfall runs off Iowa land now instead of being absorbed and held.

    Of course some farmers are doing outstanding conservation. I know a few of them myself. And my husband and I have put conservation on every acre we own. But I would argue that in Iowa, the amount of farm conservation being done needs to be compared to what is happening to our soil and water resources. By that standard, farm conservation in Iowa is extremely inadequate.

  7. Drake says:

    A few factoids to feed this discussion. The USDA estimates that 71% of the nitrate and 80% of the P in the Mississippi River comes from agricultural sources; urban sources are 9% and 12% for comparison. In Iowa, 85% of the landscape is dedicated to agriculture. For us at least, there is no doubt where the water quality impairments are coming from.

    With respect to soy biodiesel – it is worth noting that there is 120 pounds of soil erosion for every gallon of soy biodiesel manufactured. So, instead of miles per gallon, perhaps we should be talking about miles per pound of soil lost.

    Regarding conservation compliance and high participation, Don Scott is including direct payments in the calculation. This program is slated to be cut in the current farm bill – and these inflated numbers will plummet. So far, the debate still rages on whether or not to link conservation compliance to crop insurance in the future. Moreover, should be noted that this sort of conservation is the bare minimum, like you can’t drain a wetland and need a plan for HEL … in the future we need a conservation ethic that pushes us to ensure we have a future in farming, not simply ensures that our practices are 2% better than illegal. At current rates of soil loss, Iowa will lose its status as a leader in agriculture within 75 years.

  8. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Don Scott, you wrote the following:

    “It’s not really a surprise that poll respondents didn’t spend a lot of money on conservation. Most farmers and conservation experts agree that conservation doesn’t cost, it pays.”

    If conservation doesn’t cost, but pays, then why isn’t more farm conservation being done? My part of Iowa could certainly use more buffer strips, cover crops, grassed waterways, and restored wetlands, just for a start.

  9. Don Scott says:

    Soil is one of our most valuable natural resources. No one has more economic interest in building and protecting healthy soil than a farmer. The USDA and local farmer organizations have been actively promoting soil conservation programs since the 1930s. Progress has been astounding. Between 1980 and 2011, soybean farmers decreased per acre soil erosion by 41%. If you combine that with improved yields per acres, soil erosion per bushel has decreased by 66%. All historical and continued progress aside, your hypothetical statistic about the soil erosion per gallon of biodiesel is wrong.

    Soil is a renewable resource. Conservative estimates suggest that 1,000 lbs of new soil are formed every year through natural processes on an acre of land in Iowa. These estimates, of course, vary for different regions and soil types. Official values for are more like 10,000 pounds of new soil creation per acre. Farmers strive to make sure their practices maintain or build soil rather than let soil leave their property.

    No acres are planted in Iowa to specifically to produce biodiesel. Soybeans are 80% protein meal. Soybeans are grown to supply protein rations to livestock. Soy protein meal is produced by crushing beans, which also yields soybean oil. Soybean oil is used for a variety of purposes. Historically, the demand for soybean oil was insufficient to utilize all the oil coproduced from the domestic soybean crush. Biodiesel has proven to be an excellent way to use the excess soybean oil and reduce the price of protein meal. No additional acres are planted to produce biodiesel.

    It is economically impossible for biodiesel demand to drive planting of additional soybean acres. For every unit of soybean oil produced, four units of soy protein meal will also be produced. Without addition demand, the hypothetical increase in protein would cause protein prices to fall even farther. This self-limiting reaction moderates bean prices, so soybeans are only economical if there is healthy demand for protein.

    The vegetable oil that is used to produce biodiesel contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. All of these elements come from the atmosphere. Removing carbon from the air and displacing petroleum, which takes carbon from underground, is how biodiesel provides GHG reductions. This also tells us that biodiesel is not removing any nutrients from the soil. In fact, soybeans fix nitrogen in the soil. Soybean plants convert atmospheric nitrogen to a form that is useful in the soil for plant growth. This is a major aspect of crop rotations. Soybeans are grown in rotation between other crops to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer added to those crops.

  10. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Don Scott, the old estimate of five tons of new soil formed per acre per year (the 10,000 pounds you cite) may still be “official.” But it is also very outdated and is not based on current research. At the most recent soil conservation meeting I attended, that five-tons “T” replacement figure was brought up and the response was rueful laughter. (Some NRCS staffers were there.)

    The latest research indicates that half a ton per acre per year (1,000 pounds, as you said) is much closer to the real average annual replacement rate. Meanwhile, the USDA estimates that the average acre of cropland in Iowa loses more than five tons of topsoil per year. But as the report below indicates, real soil losses in Iowa are higher.

    During heavy rain events, which are becoming more frequent here, some Iowa land has lost more than sixty tons of soil per acre. Iowa cropland, on average, is losing soil at least ten times as fast as it can be replaced. That is reality.

    Farmers do indeed have a long-term economic interest in protecting their soil. But that doesn’t mean soil is being adequately protected. Farmers are human, and it’s often hard for human beings to make choices that are in their long-term best interest when there are competing short-term incentives. (Bad health habits in this country are evidence of that.) Some farmers are doing outstanding conservation. Other farmers are not.

    I will soon go on a small-group soil tour in my area with others who are involved in soil conservation. I know that we will see some examples of great soil conservation. We will also see some bad erosion. I can drive a few miles from my house and see bad erosion. That average soil loss of five tons per acre per year is not sustainable. Soil is being lost, not built, on the average cropland acre in Iowa.

    1980 was a truly dreadful year for soil erosion here. Certainly significant progress has been made since then, and that is good. But going from utterly horrendous to awful is not nearly good enough to ensure that farming will still be possible in Iowa a hundred years from now. And that should be a basic goal.

    Below is an interesting report on soil loss in Iowa that uses the latest techniques for measuring erosion. It is sobering.

  11. Drake says:

    The soil loss per gallon estimates are more real than the handwaving that created the tolerable soil loss limits. It’s simple back of the envelope calculation, which is open to critique, but it is NOT a hypothetical – it uses the USDA numbers for average bushels per acre, average erosion per acre, & bushels per gallon of biodiesel.

    Best estimates are that we are losing soil at 50 times the rate of formation. It is not reasonable to call soil a renewable resource, in my opinion, because it takes several hundred human lifetimes to create. Moreover, the formation rates you cite are only possible when building upon the rich legacy of soil we already have – it is compounding interest on a inherited a bank account. If we spend the principle, the interest stops.

    We are fooling ourselves to think conventional agriculture is not negatively impacting Iowa’s soils. Real-time monitoring shows that some townships in Iowa are eroding at greater than 50tons/acre/year. 10 million Iowa acres exceed annual T – tolerable soil loss rates – every year. 6 million Iowa acres lose more than 10 tons of soil per acre annually. Sediment cores from Iowa lakes show today’s erosion levels meet or exceed those of the Dust Bowl. All recent science points to the fact that we have historically underestimated soil loss – and that we will see severe yield declines based on loss of fertility within my lifetime. There is no denying Iowa is losing ground if you get out on the land with open eyes.

Leave a Reply