“This Land is Your (Marginal) Land….This Land is My (Marginal) Land….”

We recently came across a study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (“UIUC”) that estimates the total global amount of marginal agriculture land (“MAL”).  The study can be found here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es103338e

MAL is a concept that encompasses abandoned farmland, degraded land, wasteland, and idle land, and also takes into consideration various economic, policy, and legal factors.  Other studies have estimated MAL in the past. This UIUC study uses a fuzzy logic approach – which (as I understand it) basically means: (a) taking quantifiable input data like that from USDA NRCS and the Harmonized World Soil Database, then (b) qualitatively defining it against factors to describe land quality, and then (c) re-describing the land on a quantifiable scale.

The results are interesting.  Two things caught our attention:

(1) Half of the world’s MAL is in South America and Africa.

(2) The study creates scenarios for growing biomass crops on MAL for the production of biofuel.  One scenario map is as follows.  Looking at the US, we noticed that two areas we know to have MAL – Florida and Coastal Texas – are not included.

UIUC's calculation of MAL suitable for biofuel production

UIUC’s calculation of MAL suitable for biofuel production

TerViva works with a tree species, called pongamia, that’s usable for biofuel, biochemicals, and animal feed.  A bit of lingo:  we describe this spectrum of outputs as “biobased products”, and the crops that are used to produce biobased products as “agroindustrial crops”.

There are many crops that fit into this “agroindustrial” category – from oil producing crops like pongamia and castor, to biomass crops like poplar and switchgrass, to crops with niche purposes like guar (increasing popular in oil and gas fracking fluids – see http://bit.ly/Y0LeGJ).

Guar growing in India, bound for oil fields in the US

Guar growing in India, bound for oil fields in the US

The UIUC study – in part funded by British Petroleum’s Energy BioSciences Institute – only considers the potential of biomass crops on marginal land, and perhaps as a result, produces scenarios that ignore the potential use of MAL for other categories of agroindustrial crops and other biobased products beside biofuel.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the UIUC study in this regard.  But it does ignore places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, and Hawaii, where MAL is on the rise due to new problems (e.g., droughts, pests, diseases) – and there are unique crops like pongamia that are capable of providing solutions.

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