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Study Ignites Grass Biofuels Debate

February 24, 2013 in Biodiesel, Biofuels, Ethanol, Studies by Rich Piellisch  |  No Comments

Study Likens Damage to Deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia,
RFA Issues a Rebuttal Citing ‘Crop Switching, Not Cropland Expansion’

A study by researchers at South Dakota State University has raised alarm about the impact of biofuels industry growth on grasslands in five upper Midwest states comprising the WCB, or western corn belt.

Two of the highly technical maps released as part of the grasslands depletion study by Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University

Two of the highly technical maps released as part of the grasslands depletion study by Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University

“Corn/soy production,” write Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly, “is expanding onto marginal lands characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought.”

But, “The study’s findings stand in stark contrast to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acreage data, which show increased corn and soybean acres in the region have occurred via crop switching, not cropland expansion,” says Geoff Cooper, research and analysis VP with RFA, the Renewable Fuels Association.

“Current law strictly prohibits the conversion of sensitive ecosystems to cropland,” Cooper says. “Further, the extremely high rate of error associated with the satellite imagery used by the authors renders the study’s conclusions highly questionable and irrelevant to the biofuels policy debate.”

Blaming higher prices for the grains due to biofuel demand, the study’s authors found rates of grassland conversion to soy and corn of 1% to 5.4% per year, “comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia,” they say, “countries in which tropical forests were the principal sources of new agricultural land, globally, during the 1980s and 1990s…

“Historically, comparable grassland conversion rates have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s, the era of rapid mechanization of U.S. agriculture.”

RFA Says that Grasslands Conversion Doesn’t Pay

Wetlands are threatened too, the South Dakota State researchers say. “Grassland conversion is also concentrated in close proximity to wetlands, posing a threat to waterfowl breeding,” they write in Recent Land Use Change in the Western Corn Belt Threatens Grasslands and Wetlands, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Take it with a grain of salt, says RFA’s Cooper, as converting grassland doesn’t pay. “The provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act require that corn and other feedstocks used to produce biofuels for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) may only be sourced from land that was actively engaged in agricultural production in 2007, the year of the bill’s enactment,” he says. “Feedstock from lands converted to cropland after 2007 would not qualify for the RFS, and thus the program strongly discourages cropland expansion.”

“The study’s authors themselves,” Cooper says, “acknowledge that the converted lands they classify as ‘native grasslands’ might actually have been land planted to hay, grass pasture, or idled cropland enrolled in the CRP program.” CRP is the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program.

Christopher Wright is a postdoctoral fellow and Michael Wimberly is a senior scientist and professor at the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at SDSU, the South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D.

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Source: SDSU study via PNAS, RFA rebuttal

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