Is the Debate on Land Use Over?

Is the Debate on Land Use Over?

The full implications of the German Marshall Fund and Nature Conservancy articles in Science and the agenda and arguments of environmental and conservation advocates are coming more into focus. Consider comments posted by Nathanael Greene of the Natural Resources Defense Council on his Switchboard:

While we still do not have international protocols that pay to protect or simply prohibit clearing of carbon rich lands, emissions from cleared land driven by marginally higher demand is simply a function of the laws of supply and demand. Just as giving a gun to a person you know to be crazy makes you criminally liable for that person’s actions with that gun, we as a country must take responsibility for production (agricultural or manufacturing for that matter) we effectively export to countries that are not protecting their carbon rich lands. (emphasis added)”

The conclusion to be drawn from these studies appears to be settled among environmentalists, but not within the academic community. An early report on the release of the studies by Des Moines Register reporter Phil Brasher highlights a couple of the academic concerns.

Searchinger’s study was based in part on a model developed at Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development for estimating changes in global crop production. Several of the center’s economists were listed as co-authors of the study, but the center’s director, Bruce Babcock, declined to sign on to the report.

“He said in an interview that he was not sufficiently comfortable with the study’s methodology because it relied on outdated land-use data from the 1990s. But he agreed with the study’s fundamental premise, that increased use of biofuels would boost commodity prices and encourage more crop production.

“Hosein Shapouri, an ethanol economist for the U.S. Agriculture Department, said it’s hard to estimate the greenhouse gas impact of increased crop production because there are insufficient data on land use in other countries.”

BIO’s member companies are committed to the sustainable production of biofuels. While we appreciate the authors’ effort to further the discussion of this important topic, we share the concerns of the scientific community that the pessimistic conclusions of the Searchinger paper are not justified by the science. BIO has posted a fact sheet containing data disregarded by the Searchinger paper. BIO emphasizes that the Searchinger paper is not a life cycle analysis.

“As Dr. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University points out, ‘these analyses published in Science may not be termed life cycle analyses. Life cycle analysis (LCA) follows a specific set of rules, one of which is that the most recent and most appropriate data be used. LCA is data driven, but these two analyses are not driven by actual data at all.’”

Anna Rath, vice president of commercial development at BIO member Ceres, put it rather succinctly during a phone teleconference with reporters on Feb. 21:

“We do need to transition away from fossil fuels and we do need to do it while using the minimum number of acres possible to do this. And the way to do that is to improve yields, both in terms of tons per acre and in terms of gallons per ton through biotechnology and the application of biotechnology, both to the feedstock and to the process.”

During the same call, Dr. Matt Carr here at BIO noted that the two papers were basically split on the greenhouse gas impact of advanced biofuels from cellulosic crops and dedicated energy crops. One of them suggested that there was a carbon debt from switchgrass based fuels and the other said that there was a benefit.