Policies are beginning to encourage the transition from a fossil fuel-based to a renewable energy economy. One potential renewable energy source is grain-based ethanol. What are potential trade-offs between biofuel and food production? How much land will be required to meet all our liquid fuel demand using grain alcohol? The current land base supporting grain, wheat, and bean production in the U.S. is approximately 1,012,000 km2, with grains alone comprising half of that area. Of this amount, approximately 23% is now devoted to ethanol fuel production, and this amount produces 3% of U.S. fuel supply; the global average is closer to 5%. Using the global value as an approximation, we would need to increase ethanol production by 20-fold over current levels to meet 100% fuel needs from grain ethanol. In the U.S., this would require increasing the land base from 93,000-162,000 km2, which would exceed the total available cropland by twofold and increase the grain-producing regions by fourfold. We assume these ratios apply globally.
In 2006, the global area of maize harvested was 1,457,000 km2. Thus, using maize to meet ethanol demand in the U.S. alone for 100% fuel base would exceed the global maize harvest area in 2006. Taking into account all cereals under production worldwide at 6,799,000 km2, the 100% fuel target for the U.S. would consume 25% of all cereal production land. Adding Europe and Asia, it is easy to conceive that a 100% target fuel substitution would exceed current cereal production land globally. It is clear from these numbers that the land base would have to overrun the cropland area for current croplands and spread into other regions (tropics) and ecosystems (forests). However, for net consuming regions like the EU and countries like Germany, models have shown that the growing use of biofuels would lead to an overall increase of absolute global crop land requirements (Eickhout et al. 2008; Bringezu et al. 2009a), which implies that if biofuels are produced on existing cropland, alternative production will be displaced to other geographic areas.
As the world makes the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels, competition among land uses will occur in ways that are not obvious or intuitive. Geographical displacement of some land uses or types of agriculture may occur, and in turn create demographic shifts, changes in employment patterns, political realignments, new transportation networks, and new patterns of resource consumption and life cycles. This will increase the disconnect between the productive uses of land and consumption. For example, the current emphasis on increasing ethanol biofuel production capacity has stimulated investments in, and construction of, processing plants throughout the U.S. Midwest. To be economical and effective as a truly renewable fuel, ethanol processing must be geographically co-located with a ready supply of grain or cellulose, and the geography of grain for ethanol, mostly maize, is not widespread but concentrated in a single agricultural region in the U.S. If there is a geographic mismatch between production and consumption of ethanol, we run into the risk of creating unsustainable land transformation chains. The current distribution of planned and existing plants in the northcentral U.S. and Europe demonstrates the rapid overconcentration of production-processing plants in geographic locations that are distant from the points of consumption, which are the coastal urban conurbations.
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