Estimating land use for biofuel

How do we estimate how much of the world’s land could be used for next-generation biofuels without displacing food production or forest acreage? The short answer: It's a work in progress.

With research into new energy crops advancing and more approaches to maximize existing land emerging, some are asking whether the potential for biofuels production based on current land use may be premature or underestimated.

The cattle question

Studies of global land use show that about one quarter of the earth’s land is used for grazing. In Brazil, for example, the largest use of land is for cattle production, but it is used far below its capacity.

The Brazilian government recently passed legislation that will allow the expansion of sugarcane acreage to 64 million hectares (a hectare equates to 2.47 acres) by corresponding intensification of the cattle acres.

"There are 160 million hectares of pastures and one cow about every 100 meters; they are actually lonely. Sugarcane for ethanol now occupies 4.5 million hectares. It’s possible that Brazil could produce enough ethanol to substitute for 5 to 10 percent of all gasoline used worldwide, and supply itself, without harming food production or forests,” Carlos H. de Brito Cruz scientific director of the São Paulo Research Foundation, told Allianz earlier this year.

Crops for food and fuel

One way to address the issue of available land may be to grow a perennial crop that produces food and biofuel feedstock. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are working on just that. With funding from the Institute on the Environment’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, agronomist Donald Wyse and colleagues are examining the potential of intermediate wheatgrass, the long-lived perennial cousin to the staple grains wheat, rye, and barley, to become the first perennial crop where straw is used for biofuel and seed is used for grain. Wyse and team will use the funding for research to boost grain yield and define the most environmentally and economically profitable applications of the wheatgrass system.

Reserve lands get a new look in Wales a research team at Aberystwyth University is exploring the use of native grasses and “nuisance” plants such a rushes and bracken as potential energy crops on experimental parcels in that country’s National Nature Reserves.

"This research could offer a double environmental win: enhanced biodiversity and renewable energy,” said team leader Mariecia Fraser in a university press release.

The Wales research is part of a project with Germany and Estonia funded by the European Commission to explore how to make better use of grassland on protected sites and increase biodiversity by providing a sustainable way to manage the land.

In the United States, approximately 15 million hectares classified as idle land was previously under crop production and has been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program for environmental reasons and to support crop prices that might be diminished if those acres were returned to crop production. Research is underway to evaluate the potential for using selected reserve land to grow dedicated energy crops.


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