The Energy Footprint of Land Grabs

Large-scale land acquisitions for commercial agriculture and cash crops have been rising at an alarming rate worldwide. Our research considers the hidden energy consumption and carbon impact of this "great agrarian transition."

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The ongoing agrarian transition from small-holder farming to large-scale commercial agriculture is reshaping systems of production and human well-being in many regions. A fundamental part of this global transition is manifested in large-scale land acquisitions (LSLAs) by agribusinesses. Its energy implications, however, remain poorly understood. In our paper for Nature Communications, we assess the multi-dimensional changes in fossil-fuel-based energy demand resulting from this agrarian transition. We focus on LSLAs by comparing two scenarios of low-input and high-input agricultural practices, exemplifying systems of production in place before and after the agrarian transition. A shift to high-input crop production requires industrial fertilizer application, mechanization of farming practices and irrigation, which increases by ~5 times fossil-fuel-based energy consumption compared to low-input agriculture. Given the high energy and carbon footprints of LSLAs and concerns over local energy access, our analysis highlights the need for an approach that prioritizes local resource access and incorporates energy-intensity analyses in land use governance.

This research is part of a broader project that brought together scholars interested in an integrative inquiry into the way such "land grabs" in developing countries are impacting various environmental indicators. Our team was assembled under the auspices of the U.S. National Science Foundation's Socioecological Synthesis Center (SESYNC) through a collaboration led by Paolo D'Odorico and Jampel Dell'Angelo. We used the Land Matrix dataset as a key resource for this project. This compendium is an independent crowdsourced global land monitoring initiative with several global and regional partners. The data has allowed for a panoramic analysis of what is being termed the 21st century's "Great Agrarian Transition." An earlier paper from the same project focused on local food security and dietary diversity.  Remote sensing, and household survey data (available in 11 sub-Saharan African countries) with georeferenced information on 160 land acquisitions in 39 countries were used in this study. The results pointed to a paradox where land deals simultaneously contribute to closing the global yield gap by increasing crop production, while threatening local food security by redirecting key dietary nutrients toward the export market. 

Both these studies point to the importance of considering the "food energy water nexus" in charting international development policies involving commercial land acquisitions. Furthermore, the energy imprint of these land acquisitions provides us with a direct linkage to the carbon accounting and climate change implications of such deals. Many of the major LSLAs will utilize ammonia produced from the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. Moreover, after farmers apply synthetic fertilizers to crops, chemical reactions lead to the formation and emission of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas with 265 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Over the considered LSLAs, we estimate that synthetic fertilizer application in high-input farming would release 1.3 million tons CO2-equivalent per year, with a GHG intensity of 0.3 tons CO2-equivalent per year hectare. However, less carbon-intensive options to industrial fertilizers are available, such as using recycled organic matter, nutrients recovered from wastewater-treatment plants or manure, a more efficient application of fertilizers. A systems science approach to calculating the costs and benefits of land deals, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa would lead to more accurate forecasts of social and ecological sustainability of such transactions. 

Saleem Ali

Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware