© 2011 by the Ecological Society of America

Published in Ecological Applications, Vol. 21, No. 4 (June 2011) at doi: 10.1890/09-0619.1


While biofuels may yield renewable fuel benefits, there could be downsides in terms of water quality and other environmental stressors, particularly if corn is relied upon exclusively as the feedstock. The consequences of increased corn production will depend importantly on where (and how) the additional corn is grown, which, in turn, depends on the characteristics of land and its associated profitability. Previous work has relied on rules of thumb for allocating land to increased acreage based on historical land use or other heuristics. Here, we advance our understanding of these phenomena by describing a modeling system that links an economics-driven land use model with a watershed-based water quality model for the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB). This modeling system is used to assess the water quality changes due to increased corn acreage, which is associated with higher relative corn prices. We focus on six scenarios based on six realistic pairs of corn and soybean prices which correspond to a scale of decreasing soybean to corn price ratio. These price-driven land use changes provide estimates of the water quality effects that current biofuel policies may have in the UMRB. Our analysis can help evaluate the costs and environmental consequences associated with implementation strategies for the biofuel mandates of the new energy bill. The amounts of total N and P delivered to the outlet of the UMRB (located at Grafton, Illinois, USA) rise as corn production becomes more intensive in the region. Our results indicate that a 14.4% in corn acreage in the watershed due to corn intensification in the most economically profitable locations would result in a 5.4% increase in total nitrogen loads and in a 4.1% increase in total phosphorus loads at Grafton. Our most aggressive scenario, driven by high but not out of reach crop prices, results in about a 57% increase in corn acreage with a corresponding 18.5% increase in N and 12% increase in P. These are somewhat conservative increases in nutrients, compared to those of previous studies, likely due to our focus on cultivated cropland which is already heavily fertilized.