One of the many flaws of the Science Magazine studies on biofuels and land use changes is their assumption that an acre of crops dedicated to biofuels in America will lead to an acre of deforestation elsewhere in the world. In fact, in a recent interview with the Nature Conservancy (his employer) Joe Fargione, the author of one of the studies, goes well beyond the data supported by his study and claims that “Increased demand for ethanol corn crops in the United States is contributing to conversion of the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado.” (Emphasis added to show present tense). It would be interesting to see Fargione’s data to support that claim, because I couldn’t find it in his study.
Actually, his claim does not square with the data we have. In a speech to the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment (GLOBE), Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said his country had “60 million hectares (150 million acres) of unused grasslands that have already been deforested and no longer serve as pasture for livestock but can be recuperated for the cultivation of sugar cane and oilseeds to produce biodiesel.” According to the book Break Through, 52,000 square miles (33 million acres) were deforested in Brazil from 2002-2005, when a bushel of corn was trading for around $2. In fact, 317,000 square miles (202 million acres) of Brazilian rainforest were destroyed well before the current increase in commodity prices. Why, you might ask?
Rather than relying on modeling, let’s get the word from someone on the ground in Brazil. Peter Zuurbier, an Associate Professor located in Piracicaba, said that “deforestation leads to soybean production near the Amazon, not the other way around.” In other words, Fargione, et. al. got the correlation correct, but botched causation. Zuurbier describes what’s actually happening in Brazil:
Well organized groups and corporations with questionable land titles, but also official land owners began to chop down large acreages of forest to trade timber, both legally and illegally. Usually, after the empty strips of land were abandoned, cattle owners would move into these cheap lands. However, after 3 to 4 years of cattle breeding, the thin soil of the Amazon is completely useless without any form of fertilization and livestock owners usually move into the next abandoned area. Soybean farmers meanwhile replace the livestock in these areas, recognizing the opportunity to fertilize the area for soybean production.
So, do we blame the producers of soybeans for being the last line in that chain of events? Wouldn’t it be better to plant a crop like soybeans on that ground rather than leave it barren?
An additional problem with Fargione’s claim is that agricultural and distillers grains exports are higher than ever before in history. That’s what led Dr. Michael Wang, the researcher at Argonne’s Transportation Technology R&D Center who created the GREET LCA model for biofuels, to conclude:
There has also been no indication that U.S. corn ethanol production has so far caused indirect land use changes in other countries because U.S. corn exports have been maintained at about 2 billion bushels a year and because U.S. DGS exports have steadily increased in the past ten years.
So, while there is nothing to support Fargione’s claim of biofuels causing deforestation in the Amazon, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it’s not and that it won’t need to for a long time.