American Chemical Society

Meeting biofuel production targets could change agricultural landscape

The latest episode in the American Chemical Society's (ACS') award-winning Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions podcast series explains that meeting current biofuel production targets with existing technology would require devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the U.S. to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.

Based on a report by W. Kolby Smith, Ph.D., and colleagues in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology, the new podcast is available without charge at iTunes and from www.acs.org/globalchallenges.

Smith and colleagues explain that the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) set a goal of increasing U.S. biofuel production from 40 to 136 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2022. They point out, however, that gaps exist in the ability to establish realistic targets for biofuel production, which the law fills with assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. In an effort to establish more accurate estimates, they used satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land to determine how much biofuel the U.S. could produce.

The satellite analysis found that meeting the EISA goals with current technology would require farmers to plant biofuel crops on 80 percent of their farmed land or plant biofuel crops on 60 percent of the land currently used to raise livestock. Both options would significantly reduce the amount of food U.S. farmers produce. The changes also could lead to more polluted freshwater and accelerate global climate change, the report indicated.