A new study finds that a full transition to electric vehicles in the United States could rein in future cropland expansion by cutting down the area needed to grow biofuel feedstocks.
“If you have more electric vehicles [in the U.S.]…you basically free up 10% of global maize production,” lead author Dr. Jerome Dumortier, associate professor in agricultural economics at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, told Carbon Brief.
The study measured the impact of an EV transition against a baseline that has the total land area needed to grow crops in 2050 increasing by 47 million to 64 million hectares worldwide to feed the global population. It finds that 5.1% to 9.4% of that increase could be avoided if 100% of U.S. vehicle sales were electric by that year. Reducing the area needed to grow crops could also affect the pace of climate change by freeing up land to store carbon, Carbon Brief says.
While the study focused on an EV transition in the U.S., the impact on crop producers would be felt across the globe. In fact, the countries where cropland expansion is expected to be reduced the most are Brazil, China, and India, while any effect on the U.S.’s maize production would be comparatively minor.
“If you think about the carbon stock…the U.S. compared to other countries is actually relatively low,” Dumortier said. “You’re not going to have some tropical forest growing in Iowa.”
While this result makes sense for lessening the impacts of climate change, reducing cropland expansion would also lower the agricultural economic output of the countries most affected. Negative impacts could be compounded if the U.S.’s output remained constant and, with less demand from biofuel production, flooded the global corn market to push down the value of the other countries’ production.
“As maize becomes less profitable due to falling demand, this trickles through the entire global agricultural market, with farmers increasing their production of other crops and therefore bringing their prices down as well,” says Carbon Brief.
Dr. Kemen Austin, a policy analyst at RTI International who was not involved in the research, raised doubts about the findings, telling Carbon Brief the study’s estimates for land cover change linked to biofuel demand seemed high compared to past research., Stephanie Searle, who directs the U.S. fuels program at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), added that land-use change modelling is “notoriously uncertain.”
Despite the doubts, Austin said the study is still important for highlighting “an important point that has been understudied thus far in the literature—that vehicle electrification could have important indirect effects on agricultural production and greenhouse gas emissions globally.”