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Do ethanol plants affect land use?

Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago has revealed that a modern ethanol plant has negligible effects on land use. The findings contradict other studies that claim corn-based ethanol contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. The land-use change issue is yet another point of contention in the ongoing debate concerning the use of corn as a feedstock in the expanding North American biofuel market.

February 24, 2010  By Blair Andrews

Research from the US Midwest indicates that corn acreage actually decreased around both a newly constructed ethanol plant and one that expanded in 2008.

Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago has revealed that a modern ethanol plant has negligible effects on land use. The findings contradict other studies that claim corn-based ethanol contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than previously thought. The land-use change issue is yet another point of contention in the ongoing debate concerning the use of corn as a feedstock in the expanding North American biofuel market.

Two theories against corn-based biofuel allege that increased ethanol production results in native land being converted into crop production and an increase in the number of corn acres planted versus other crops. Previous studies examined two types of land-use changes: direct and indirect. Direct land use change refers to the conversion of acres in the direct supply chain of an ethanol plant. Indirect land use change takes market forces into account, which act to induce land-use change on domestic but mostly foreign land that is not part of the direct supply chain. For example, one proposition of indirect land-use change is that increased ethanol production in the United States leads to increased planting of corn, which reduces available areas for soybean production. This reduces soy exports from the US, prompting  other countries, such as Brazil, to adjust their agricultural land use and ultimately convert native land to meet the soybean shortfall created by US biofuels production.


Led by Dr. Steffen Mueller, the Energy Resources Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago has examined the land-use impacts of two ethanol plants in Rochelle and Annawan, Illinois. “I’m looking at mostly direct land use, and the premise of my argument is if we don’t see any direct land-use change after an ethanol plant goes into an area, and there are increased yields, there shouldn’t be any indirect effect,” says Mueller.

Using satellite images and farmer surveys, the research monitored each acre of farmland within a 20- to 40-mile (32- to 64-kilometre) radius of the plants before they opened and after. In addition to land-use change, the study also examined the land carbon balance for corn produced to supply the plants. “We found that there was, before and after the plants went in, at a maximum, a couple of hundred acres of changes of non-agricultural land to agricultural land that took place in the startup of the ethanol plant,” explains Mueller. “We concluded that an ethanol plant going into a particular area, at least in the central Midwest, will likely not prompt large-scale conversion of non-agricultural land in the area.”

Mueller’s research, commissioned by the Illinois Corn Growers Association, started with the Illinois River Energy Center that began operating in Rochelle in December 2006. The study has been updated to include the plant’s expansion in November 2008, as well as the Patriot Renewable Fuels plant in Annawan that started in September 2008. The analysis performed for the corn supply areas showed that 534 acres of forest and 105 acres of grassland were converted around the Rochelle plant while 609 acres of forest and six acres of grassland were converted to corn near the Annawan plant.

The study also notes that the draw of the ethanol plants was relatively small compared to the amount of corn produced in the areas, and increases in corn yield in the regions were sufficient to meet the ethanol plants’ demand.

Despite the start-up of the one plant and the expansion of the other in the fall of 2008, Mueller says the corn acreage decreased, providing further evidence that the ethanol plants have a weak influence on corn rotations.

Further research on the impact of corn and ethanol production should also include the livestock sector.

In-depth numbers do not jibe with speculation
As for the assertion that ethanol plants indirectly affect land use elsewhere, the study analyzed Illinois’ corn production, export and uses. It showed that during the past 35 years, corn production almost doubled from 1.2 billion to 2.2 billion bushels. Moreover, corn carryout has also been on the rise. The study notes that feed corn has been decreasing, which may be indicative of decreasing livestock but also increased use of dried distillers’ grains with solubles (DDGS) as feedstock. Meanwhile, the data show that increases in corn production on relatively constant corn acres were sufficient to support both increasing exports as well as corn for ethanol use.

Another notable aspect of the study is the method by which it examined the land-use issue. Mueller says that his research differs from the other studies because it takes a bottom-up approach, meaning it uses relevant farming data, including farmer surveys and sophisticated satellite imagery. “We’re using actual land-use change analysis on the ground; it’s a big difference from using a computer model,” says Mueller. 

The implications of these assessments are significant to the future direction of ethanol policies, particularly in the US. The concept is to ensure that certain energy sources that are promoted as greener alternatives to gas and oil are not actually worse options than the fossil fuels.

One such case is playing out in California. Ethanol supporters have been crying foul over the way the Air Resources Board in the state is regulating its low carbon fuel standard. By using the indirect land-use change figure in its calculations, the carbon footprint of corn ethanol is increased. Ethanol proponents, pointing to Mueller’s research to support their case, argue that current and future technological advancements in agriculture need to be accurately
accounted in the assessments of renewable fuels.

Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle, professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph, is also of the opinion that the agricultural data in these models should be improved. In several cases, she notes that the models use emission factors that are not representative of local soil and crop management practices. “It is important to consider how corn is grown. What are the inputs in terms of nitrogen fertilizer, and the typical yields for a region? Are best management practices used? Often the numbers used are not the best for a given location.”

She adds that having better data will be important as Canada seeks to provide life cycle assessments on growing biomass for fuel or energy under Ontario or Canadian conditions.

In another reaction to the Illinois research, Dr. Al Mussell, senior research associate at the George Morris Centre, would like to see a longer-range analysis of the impact of ethanol production.  Mussell has co-authored several studies on the impact of ethanol on Canada’s livestock sector. He says that the main anticipated result from the construction of an ethanol plant is that the local corn basis will strengthen. “The result of that is, over time, it provides an incentive to move acreage into corn from other uses. While the Illinois study results show the corn acreage hasn’t changed much, you won’t get dramatic shifts when you have acreage bound by crop rotations, and the latent potential of shifting acreage also strengthens the basis for soybeans.”

Mussell adds that acreage shifts will be gradual, and looking for them in such a short time frame with so many other potential factors, including wet weather delaying corn planting, may not be a sufficient assessment.

More than just cropping issues
When discussing changes in pasture acreage, Mussell says it is important to consider how the livestock sector operates. With so much time and money invested in the business, he says the producers are not likely to abandon it quickly. “When you get talking about pasture, for folks that are in the cattle business, it’s a very long lag time, driven by gestation and biology,” explains Mussell. “If you have a herd of cows that you’re breeding and putting your imprint on, you’re loathe to get out of that business. I could show you any number of places in Ontario where folks, even if they understood their land values, and understood there’s no way they can afford to have cows running on it, are loathe to get out of it because this is their career, their life’s work, and they’ll absorb a fair amount of financial hardship and stick with it.”

From the perspective of a farmer, and an ethanol producer, Tom Cox says the impact of an ethanol plant is creating more enthusiasm to grow corn. Cox is chair of the Integrated Grain Processors Co-operative (IGPC) in Aylmer, Ontario. The IGPC ethanol plant started operating in the fall of 2008 and Cox says that some farmers may be more enthusiastic, but he is not sure how that optimism translates into tangible cropping plans, noting that the wet, cool spring of 2009 made it difficult to plant corn. “The most compelling argument is the fact that since about 2002, the output of ethanol from North America, derived almost entirely from grain, has increased by more than 400 percent,” says Cox, commenting on the land-use issue. “Meanwhile, corn exports from the US have remained very much within normal annual variation while soybean exports continue to increase and are about 20 percent higher this year from 2002 when the current rapid expansion of the ethanol industry began.”

Furthermore, Cox says that because the ethanol industry has experienced rapid expansion without sacrificing domestic or export markets, a less frantic expansion should be manageable in the coming years. “If we are to believe, according to those advancing the land-use issue, that corn usage for ethanol in North America is causing land to be diverted from soybean production here, then it would seem to follow that we would see declining, not growing, North American soybean exports,” says Cox. 

As far as the future of the land-use debate and the role of life cycle assessments are concerned, ethanol proponents have received some positive news. Their requests for better information about calculating land-use impact did not fall on deaf ears. The California Air Resources Board has agreed to convene an expert working group to help refine and improve its land-use analysis. The group has been directed to evaluate key factors that might impact the land use values for biofuels, including agricultural yield improvements, changes in farming practices and biofuel co-products such as DDGS. The group is expected to return to the board with its recommendations by January 2011.


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