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Biofuel Review Part 3: Land Availability, Conversion, and Deforestation
By Patrick E. Meyer


Biofuels and biomass-based energy have the potential to become major contributors to the global primary energy supply over the next century, expanding significantly in both developed and developing nations (Berndes et al., 2003). However, a full understanding of the global impacts of expanded biomass production has yet to be realized. Dramatic increases in biomass production will have an impact on energy, environment, economy, and society/culture.

In this ongoing series on biofuel and biomass energy, I discuss the most prominent and critical issues surrounding the biofuel industry. In the first article I discussed biofuel basics, outlining the general premise of the biofuel industry, and providing details on specific end-products such as biodiesel, ethanol, biogas, and renewable diesel (Meyer, 2009a). In the second article I discussed emissions impacts and infrastructure development, providing information on biofuels’ carbon impacts, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and availability of production and distribution infrastructure (Meyer, 2009b). This article, the third in the series, provides a discourse on an exceptionally important concern of biofuel and biomass production—that of land availability, conversion, and deforestation.

Land Availability

Current biofuel production goals range from mediocre to aggressive. Current targets range from 2 percent to 3 percent of total energy supply in New Zealand and Japan, to 25 percent in Brazil (Ruth, 2008). The EU plans to set a target of 5.75 percent of total energy supply by 2010 and 10 percent by 2020; Japan has set a target of 20 percent by 2030; and Canada of 5 percent ethanol by 2010 and 2 percent biodiesel by 2012 (Ruth, 2008). In the US, the Energy Independence Security Act of 2007 mandates the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, including 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels produced from cellulosic biomass feedstocks (Gopalakrishnan et al., 2009).

One of the predominant questions regarding these ambitious biofuel production goals is: where will the crops grow? In this section, I focus on the concept of land availability for the production of biofuels. It is argued that biofuels can be substituted for fossil energy only if the large-scale production of biofuels is biophysically feasible, meaning the production is not constrained by the availability of land and fresh water sources for energy crop production (Giampietro et al., 1997). Indeed, the land used for feedstock production is a key factor in determining biofuel sustainability (Gopalakrishnan et al., 2009).

Land availability for the production of biofuels is influenced by the value of the land and the variety of services that the land provides, from wilderness to food production to urban occupation, as well as its overall biomass productivity levels (IPCC, 2000). Giampietro et al. (1997) have estimated the land demand for large-scale biofuel production based on the commercial energy used per person per year for citizens of a number of countries. When compared to the available arable land per person, it is evident that the vast majority of countries do not have enough land to produce all of their energy needs from biomass and biofuels. Figure 1 demonstrates the authors’ results by providing the total arable land demand/supply ratio for each country. For example, in Japan, where each person consumes 134 gigajoules of energy per year, it would require 4.42 hectares of land per person to supply enough biomass feedstock to meet energy consumption. However, Japan is densely populated and there are only 0.03 hectares of arable land available per person. Thus the total arable land demand/supply ratio is 4.42/0.03 (plus the authors’ adjustment), or 148.3. Due to Japan’s relatively high energy consumption and relatively low arable land available, the country has the highest demand/supply ratio of the countries shown. Similar trends are found in The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and the United States; none of these countries have enough arable land to meet demand of a nation-wide biomass-based energy system (Giampietro et al., 1997).
In fact, Giampietro et al.’s data show that only three countries have enough land available to produce enough biomass to meet demand: Uganda, Burundi, and Bangladesh. These countries have very low energy usage per person, and a moderate area of land available per person, allowing each to potentially produce more biomass-based energy than can be consumed.

Figure 1: Total Arable Land Demand/Supply Ratio by Country
Data source: Giampietro et al. (1997)

Related studies have shown that even if the US were to use all of its current agricultural land for biofuel feedstock production, the quantity of biofuel produced would be only a fraction of total energy demand:

According the University of Minnesota, devoting all US corn and soybean acreage to ethanol and biodiesel production would offset only 12 percent and 6 percent of gasoline and diesel consumption for transportation fuel, respectively, and even less if adjustments were made for the fossil fuel requirements for producing the biofuel. Use of so much land to meet a relatively small share of transportation fuel demand is improbable. The resource commitment to meet domestic fuel demand would be less in a lower income economy. Expanding feedstock production, however, that encroaches on fragile rainforest areas and wildlife habitats is still a concern in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil (Coyle, 2007).

Similarly, a 2004 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) assumes a scenario in which both biodiesel and bioethanol displace 10 percent of their fossil counterparts in the European Union by 2020 and estimates a land requirement of 38 percent of the total acreage in the EU15 (Frondel and Peters, 2007; IEA, 2004). Devoting 38 percent of the EU15’s land to biofuel feedstock production is likely an unrealistic goal.

However, some scholars have concluded that there may be enough land to significantly increase biofuel production, but to do so we must get creative. In the state of Nebraska, researchers estimated the amount of abandoned agricultural and conservation lands using the geographic information software ArcGIS. They concluded that using marginal land resources such as riparian and roadway buffer strips, brownfield sites, and marginal agricultural land could produce enough feedstock to meet 22 percent of the energy requirements of Nebraska, compared to the current supply of only 2 percent (Gopalakrishnan et al., 2009). Unique approaches, such as lining our roadways with productive plants rather than the current mess of weeds, could be the answer to meeting a larger portion of energy demand with biomass and biofuels.

Further, the potential for increased production of biofuels can be accomplished through increased rates of plant productivity and more efficient conversion processes and capture of wastes (IPCC, 2000). In the US, crop productivity (i.e. yield) has historically almost always had annual improvements. For example, since 1900, US yield of corn per acre has increased nearly 500 percent; since 1980 yield has increased nearly 80 percent (USDA, 2009). Given the historical trends, further increases in productivity are likely, and an increase in productivity or efficiency will reduce the demand for physical space and lessen the problems associated land availability.

Land Conversion and Deforestation

Given that there is not enough land in most countries to provide feedstock for a biomass-based energy economy (Coyle, 2007; Frondel and Peters, 2007; Giampietro et al., 1997), some countries may convert or deforest their lands to provide increased acreage for biofuel feedstock and allow the country to produce biofuels for domestic demand or export biofuel or biofuel feedstock to energy-hungry nations. The impacts of land conversion and deforestation can be environmentally disastrous, including tremendous loss of biodiversity, which implies loss of the value of the direct uses to which species might be put to use by humans and the loss of existence values that are independent of such direct uses (Fearnside, 2007). Deforestation also negatively affects water cycling, increases the emission of GHGs leading to climate change, and, since most deforestation is for cattle pastures that do little for the national economy, eliminates potential employment opportunities in more productive sustainable woodland jobs (Fearnside, 2007).

International trade in energy from biomass may have heavy disadvantages for developing nations. Biomass produced in developing nations and meant for export might not be cultivated or harvested sustainability. Further, exportation of biomass or biofuels may not be the best application for the product, if domestic use of the biomass could replace domestic use of fossil fuels (Agterberg and Faaij, 1998). However, a higher market price for biomass abroad, compared to domestic, will entice producers to sell to world markets.

Land conversion and deforestation in the name of increased biofuel production may have widespread and serious impacts on already-threatened regions of the world. It has been reported that US incentives for biofuel production are promoting land conversion and deforestation in southeast Asia and the Amazon:

William Laurance, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says that massive subsidies to promote American corn production for ethanol have shifted soy production to Brazil where large areas of cerrado grasslands are being torn up for soybean farms. The expansion of soy in the region is contributing to deforestation in the Amazon (Butler, 2008).

Similar reports have come from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other regions of the world:

Already, the growing demand for biofuels is bringing major expansions. Last fall, Singapore was enveloped in choking haze from forest fires set to clear land to plant oil palms. The palms will supply 90 biodiesel plants under construction in Malaysia and Indonesia. Biofuels are "a key engine of growth," says Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. If the bioenergy boom continues, Agriculture Dept. chief economist Keith Collins foresees boosts in sugar cane and other crops everywhere from Thailand and Australia to Brazil and Central America. "It starts to change the landscape of agriculture," he says (Carey and Carter, 2007).

Some argue that, if undertaken properly and in a well-planned manner, international biofuel trade will not result in increased land conversion or deforestation. In a viewpoint article published in Energy Policy, Mathews (2007) expresses that commentators on the world’s energy issues have yet to recognize the enormous contribution that biofuels producers from the South could make to solving the world’s GHG emission problems. The author argues that a transition to substitution of 20 percent of the gasoline needs of nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by 2020 could be met from the South by creating the equivalent of 18 Brazils over the course of the next decade. Through the creation of an institutional framework, Mathews devises a situation in which the North is guaranteed regular supplies of biofuels and the South is guaranteed open markets for their exports.

A North-South “Biopact,” according to Mathews, would allow for the creation of agreements which would satisfy the North’s need for fuel and simultaneously prevent deforestation in the South. That is, through the creation of broad international agreements, the South would be able to “stave off the forces pushing for irresponsible biofuel development, through forest clearances, water wastage and illegal runoff” (p. 3552). Further, agreements could encourage the rolling back of deserts in India and elsewhere, which would green former waste and degraded land and thus further curb deforestation.

One obvious criticism of Mathews’ viewpoint is simply that broad international agreements are extremely difficult to foster. Indeed, agreements regarding who gets what and how in the international realm take significant time to cultivate and the debate process often ends in a final product that is watered-down and does not achieve the idealistic goals that the talks sought to foster in the first place. Further, international agreements are often removed from actual practice and, in the case of deforestation, would not concretely ensure that illegal deforestation does not continue to occur at a staggering rate. Moreover, although converting desert land (referred to as “waste and degraded land” by Mathews) to farm land may reduce the destruction of virgin forests in some regions, there is valuable desert biodiversity loss associated with doing so.

Making the most out of already deforested and degraded lands can also ease the pressure on forested high-quality lands. Indeed, there are large areas of deforested and degraded lands in tropical countries that could produce multiple benefits from the establishment of biofuel plantations (Brown, 1998). Conversion of these already deforested lands to biofuel plantations can provide economic value to the local people. Large-scale biofuel production will require specific energy crops, improved land management, species selection and mixes, genetic engineering, and so forth (IPCC, 2000).

Clearly, land availability, land conversion, and deforestation for large-scale production of biofuels are critical issues. Many researchers have shown that there simply is not enough arable land available to supply feedstocks for a biomass-based energy economy. Due to the lack of arable land, some countries may pursue land conversion and deforestation, potentially eliminating many of the environmental benefits embodied in biomass-based energy. These issues can cause compounded problems when developing nations seek economic benefits of biofuel production for export at the cost of the quality of their own land or wellbeing of their own people. In the next installment of this series, I will discuss issues stemming from biofuel production and global trade: the ‘food versus fuel’ and ‘profit versus hunger’ arguments.


Agterberg, A. E., and Faaij, A. P. C. (1998), Biotrade: International Trade in Renewable Energy from Biomass, Utrecht, Netherlands: Utrecht University.

Berndes, G., Hoogwijk, M., and Broek, R. v. d. (2003), "The contribution of biomass in the future global energy supply: a review of 17 studies," Biomass and Bioenergy, 25(1), 1-28.

Brown, L. (1998), "State of the World 1998" Worldwatch Institute.

Butler, R. (2008), "U.S. biofuels policy drives deforestation in Indonesia, the Amazon," news.mongabay.com. Retrieved 16 December 2009 from http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0117-biofuels.html

Carey, J., and  Carter, A. (2007), "Food vs. Fuel," BusinessWeek, New York, NY, Retrieved 12 December 2009 from www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_06/b4020093.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_top+story

Coyle, W. (2007), "The future of biofuels: A global perspective," Washington, DC: USDA Economic Research Service: Amber Waves. Retrieved 12 December 2009 from www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/November07/Features/Biofuels.htm

Fearnside, P. M. (2007), "Deforestation in Amazonia," The Encyclopedia of Earth. Retrieved 16 December 2009 from www.eoearth.org/article/Deforestation_in_Amazonia

Frondel, M., and Peters, J. (2007), "Biodiesel: A new Oildorado?" Energy Policy, 35, 1675-1684.

Giampietro, M., Ulgiati, S., and Pimentel, D. (1997), "Feasibility of Large-Scale Biofuel Production," BioScience, 47(9), 587-600.

Gopalakrishnan, G., Negri, M. C., Wang, M., Wu, M., Snyder, S. W., and LaFreniere, L. (2009), "Biofuels, Land, and Water: A Systems Approach to Sustainability," Environmental Science and Technology, 43(15), 6094–6100.

IEA. (2004), "Biofuels for transport," Paris, France: International Energy Agency.

IPCC. (2000), "Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry," Geneva, Switzerland: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved 15 December 2009 from www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/land_use/index.php?idp=0

Mathews, J. (2007), "Biofuels: What a Biopact between North and South could achieve," Energy Policy, 35, 3550-3570.

Meyer, P. E. (2009a), "Biofuel Review: Part 1 — Biofuel Basics," IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online, Washington, D. C. Retrieved 27 October 2009 from www.todaysengineer.org/2009/Aug/biofuels-pt1.asp

Meyer, P. E. (2009b), "Biofuel Review: Part 2 - Emissions Impacts and Infrastructure Development," IEEE-USA Today's Engineer Online, Washington, D.C. Retrieved 16 November 2009 from www.todaysengineer.org/2009/Nov/Biofuels-pt2.asp

Ruth, L. (2008), "Bio or bust? The economic and ecological cost of biofuels," EMBO Reports, 9(2), 130-133.

USDA, (2009), Corn, Field: National Statistics, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C. Retrieved 16 December 2009 from www.nass.usda.gov/QuickStats/index2.jsp#top




Patrick E. Meyer is a doctoral student and research associate at the University of Delaware’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and is also a research associate with Energy and Environmental Research Associates, LLC., Pittsford, New York, specializing in energy and environmental life-cycle analysis. Meyer also serves on the IEEE-USA Communications Committee and is IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer Energy, Environment & Sustainability Editor.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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