Research addresses global agricultural intensity improvements

By Erin Voegele | September 21, 2011

The results of a project undertaken by a team of University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin researchers show that closing agricultural “yield gaps” around the world could lead to more efficient agricultural production. This could allow more biofuels to be produced without the clearing of additional land. A paper outlining the project, titled “Closing the gap: global potential for increasing biofuel production through agricultural intensification,” has been published in the online research journal Environmental Research Letters.

While the researchers note that U.S. agriculture has undergone a period of rapid intensification since the 1940s via a combination of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, best management practice techniques, mechanization, irrigation, new seed varieties and genetic engineering, not all regions of the have realized these improvements in agricultural intensity. According to information released by the team, different areas of the globe that share similar water and climate conditions were grouped, allowing researchers 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 biofuel crops. Biodiesel feedstocks addressed in the study include castor, coconut, cotton, groundnut, mustard, oil palm, rapeseed, sesame, soybean and sunflower.

Regarding biodiesel, the researchers found that increasing the lowest-yielding biofuel crop production to the median level for 10 common biodiesel crops could translate into 2.25 billion gallons of additional annual production on a global basis. However, the team also inferred the potential yield increases using two other levels of intensity improvements. According to the research paper, 264 million additional gallons of biodiesel could be produced if the bottom 10 percent of cultivated lands, in terms of production level, for each of the 10 crops were intensified to 10th percentile yield levels. The potential increase in production was found to rise to 8.7 billion gallons if production was increased to the 90th percentile.

“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. “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.”

Information released by the team notes that the cropland data that formed the foundation for this research was gathered from approximately 22,000 county, state and country-level reporting units, and represents one of the most comprehensive global collections of agricultural census data ever complied. “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,” said the team in a press release. 


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