Study Finds Closing Yield Gaps Worldwide Would Boost Biofuels Production Without Clearing More Land

Date Posted: September 19, 2011

Minneapolis, St. Paul—New research published online this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters by a team from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin shows that closing agricultural “yield gaps” around the world could lead to more efficient agricultural production – and thus more biofuels – without the need to clear more land globally.

By grouping different areas around the globe that share similar water and climate conditions, the team was able to calculate the impacts of improving distribution of high-yielding cultivars, inputs, irrigation and the application of best-in-class management practices for 20 common agricultural biofuels crops.

The study identified hot spots of low-yielding agriculture – in locations such as Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe – that might benefit from increased use of modern agricultural practices.

The researchers found that increasing the lowest-yielding biofuels crop production to the median for 10 common ethanol crops and 10 common biodiesel crops would translate into approximately 112.5 billion liters of ethanol (30 billion gallons) and 8.5 billion liters of biodiesel (2.25 billion gallons) above what is currently being produced annually.

“With ethanol and biodiesel production expected to grow by 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively, between 2009 and 2018 given current biofuels mandates, the study could have wide-ranging impacts on biofuels policy and hopefully begin to limit the amount of land cleared for biofuels production over the coming years,” said Matt Johnston, lead author and a Global Renewable Energy Leadership Fellow with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

However, while the potential volume of additional biofuel production identified by the study is quite large, it would require all countries across the globe to increase yields for all 20 of the crops to median levels of what was possible in the year 2000 – a logistically challenging prospect.

In addition, the 120 billion liters identified by this study would still not be enough to meet even the 136-billion-liter U.S. biofuels target for 2022, reaffirming the need for next-generation biofuels and feedstocks.

“We are not claiming that agricultural biofuels should not be pursued at scale volumes or to their full potential, but simply that policy makers need to set realistic expectations for offsetting the demand for petroleum fuels,” said Johnston.

The cropland data that formed the foundation of this research – gathered from approximately 22,000 county, state and country-level reporting units – represents one of the most comprehensive global collections of agricultural census data ever compiled.

Although a number of earlier studies looked at past yield performance data to better understand agricultural production, this is one of the few forward-looking attempts to estimate yield gaps and future production potential, taking into account factors such as climate and water availability of individual growing regions.

The researchers concluded by advising that future biofuels development be sustainable and responsible.

Increased agricultural efficiency – or “sustainable intensification” – can help alleviate some of the most damaging effects of modern agricultural systems while also increasing biofuels production.

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