Land Use Study Does a Belly Flop In Scientific Community

In Environmental, Ethanol, General, government, Land Use, Research by Mark


Remember the old, very successful beef commercials that had a grandmotherly character asking “Where’s The Beef?” Well a growing number of real scientists, the kind with actual degrees in their field of expertise, are asking where’s the science?

It seems having a word processor, some passing knowledge of an issue, and some good connections with science magazines or journals who support your position is all it takes these days to get published like an actual scientist.

The most recent example of this emerging trend has degreed and pedigreed academics calling out a high profile paper on land use by Tim Searchinger as nothing more than ideology draped in a lab coat to disguise it as science.

Searchinger, who has questionable credentials regarding land use, contends in assessing the carbon\environmental footprint of ethanol production we must also assess any related changes in land use in the U.S. and internationally. Specifically, he states using increasing amounts of corn in the U.S. to make ethanol must have a direct correlation with cutting down rain forest in Brazil.

Professor John Mathews and Dr. Hao Tan, researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, undertook an exhaustive analysis of Searchinger et al. which revealed that the framework used was inappropriate in that it started with faulty assumptions. In fact they say Searchinger et al’s pseudo-science fell far short of acceptable scientific standards because it ignores current information on domestic and international corn yield trends and credible carbon sequestration information, both of which are readily available. Even more concerning is the inability of other scientists to replicate Searchinger’s research.

When a researcher tells you your work lacks transparency and scientific integrity, that is about as harsh as it gets.

“If you wished to put U.S. ethanol production in the worst possible light, assuming the worst possible set of production conditions guaranteed to give the worst possible set of indirect land use effects, then the assumptions would not be far from those actually presented in the Searchinger et al. paper,” commented Dr. Hao Tan. “Frankly, better science upon which to base (EPA) rule-making is available today.”

The Mathews and Tan analysis identified six areas in which Searchinger et al. fell short:

  • Direct plantings of biofuels crops around the world are ignored, and instead a spike in U.S. corn-based ethanol is considered a trigger;
  • The U.S. spike is met exclusively by growing corn – but other ways of meeting the U.S. spike, all involving fewer GHG emissions, are ignored;
  • The U.S. spike met entirely within the U.S. – without regard to trade (such as half of the spike being met by Brazilian sugarcane and imported into the U.S.);
  • The Searchinger et al. calculations of carbon release are based on trends recorded in the 1990s but are projected forward up to 2016;
  • Improvements in biomass yields around the world are not considered;
  • The U.S. spike leads to indirect effects around the world without regard to regulatory limits (even in the U.S.).