Indirect Land Use Effects

Indirect land use changes (ILUC) occur if changes in agricultural land use in one location result in a change in land use in another location. They have become a subject of public interest with the expanison of biofuel production, leading to the questions as to what extent biofuel cultivation in Europe and North America promotes deforestation in the tropics. ILUC are often market mediated and in that case they are triggered by changes in the supply and demand for agricultural commodities and the resulting changes of commodity prices. The underlying theory states that high prices for agricultural commodities encourage the conversion of land into farmland while low prices discourage such a conversion. However, ILUC can also be triggered more directly by 


For example the conversion of rangeland into cropland to produce biofuels (direct land use change) can cause a migration of cattle herders to other locations where they clear forests to create new rangeland (indirect land use change) (Lapola et al., 2010). 

result in an unsatisfied demand for the commodity previously produced there and related price increases which in turn motivate conversion of land to cropland in another location (indirect land use change) (Ahlgren & Di Lucia, 2014; Villoria & Hertel , 2011). Likewise, new uses of crops for non-food purposes can lead to increased demand, higher crop prices and ultimately conversion of new land for food production (Wicke et al., 2012). Indirect land use changes can have a significant impact on economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability (Ahlgren & Di Lucia, 2014).  


Scientific discourse on ILUC was originally initiated in connection with the effects of biofuel production. Searchinger et al. (2008) argued that American biofuel production triggered indirect land use changes, most notably the conversion of tropical rainforests and grasslands to farmland, which led to massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and resulted in a net-negative effect on global climate. However, while there is scientific consensus on the existence on ILUC effects, their quantification is still problematic with various modelling approaches resulting in different ILUC factors. 


At EU level, Directive 2015/1513 was passed in 2015 to account for ILUC effects in bioenergy and biofuels and to amend the Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC) and the Fuels Directive (98/70/EC).

Why are ILUC relevant to soil management?   

The transformation from a fossil fuel based economy to a bioeconomy creates new demands for agricultural commodities with consequent effects on global markets. This will most likely cause indirect land use changes, which must be considered in impact assessments. Every management shift at farm or regional level that significantly affects the balance between production and demand will contribute to price formation and thereby also affect indirect land use change. Where production approaches demand, prices drop and motivate extensification and land abandonment. Where production decreases further below demand, prices increase and motivate conversion of new areas into farmland. 


The conversion of forests and grasslands into cropland incur massive ecological costs. In the context of soils, the conversion reduces the soils’ ability to provide climate regulation ecosystems (CICES, XX). Soils represent the biggest terrestrial pool of organic carbon on our planet and therefore play a substantial role in the global carbon cycle (Robinson, et al., 2013). Land use change has a considerable effect on that cycle through changing soil C accumulation rates and turnover, vegetation biomass and soil erosion (Deng et al., 2014).


To ignore the impacts of ILUC could be detrimental to the overall sustainability of a particular strategy. For example, the substitution of fossil fuels with biofuels is considered to contribute to sustainable development. For this reason, many governments around the world have adopted policies supporting the development of biofuel technologies. However this development has raised different concerns in relation to biodiversity, food supply, water resources and additional GHG emissions (Di Lucia L. et al., 2012). The indirect land use change and associated rise in GHG emissions from expanding cropland for producing displaced agriculture products could reduce the carbon benefits related to biofuels and affect negatively the natural resources in a certain region including soils (Bentivoglio, D. & Racetti, M., 2015).


One major difficulty when considering ILUC is that they are not easily observable. For example, a farmer in Europe could not see any indirect effects of his or her actions and it cannot be proven that a certain land use change somewhere else in the world is a result from the European farmer’s change from producing a crop for food to producing it for any other purpose. The links are very complex and impossible to track down (Ahlgren S. & Di Lucia L., 2014). 


However, since agricultural production is displaced, the price of the displaced products will increase as a consequence. The supply with a given product has been reduced, in response to that the global food price will increase. The effect of this increase in food prices is the expansion of cropland for agricultural production (Bentivoglio, D. & Racetti, M., 2015).


Ahlgren S., Di Lucia L. (2014). Indirect land use changes of biofuel production – a review of modelling efforts and policy developments in the European Union. Biotechnology for Biofuels, 7: 35, DOI:10.1186/1754-6834-7-35


N.B. Villoria, T.W. Hertel (2011).Geography matters: international trade patterns and the indirect land use effects of biofuels. Am J Agric Econ, 93 (2011), pp. 919-935
Robinson, D., Emmett, B., Sowerby, A., Cooper, D., Marshall, M., Lebron, I., Jones, S. (2013). The Contribution of Soil Structure to Climate Regulation and Other Regulating Ecosystem Services.


Di Lucia L., Ahlgren S., Ericsson K. (2012). The dilemma of indirect land-use changes in EU biofuel policy – An empirical study of policy-making in the context of scientific uncertainty. Environmental science & policy, 16: 9-19, DOI:10.1016/j.envsci.2011.11.004


Bentivoglio, D. & Racetti, M. (2015): Biofuel sustainability: review of implications for land use and food price. Rivista di Economia Agraria, Anno LXX, n. 1, 7-31
ISO/TS-14067, 2013. Greenhouse Gases - Carbon Footprint of Products - Requirements and Guidelines for Quantification and Communication. International Standard, Geneva, Switzerland


Lambin E F, Meyfroidt P (2011) Global land use change, economic globalization, and the looming land scarcity, PNAS, 108 (9), 346–3472. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1100480108


Lapola D M, Schaldach R, Alcamo J, Bondeau A, Koch J, Koelking C, Priess J A (2010) Indirect land-use changes can overcome carbon savings from biofuels in Brazil. PNAS, 107 (8), 3388–3393. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0907318107


Searchinger T, Heimlich R, Houghton R A, Dong F, Elobeid A, Fabiosa J, Tokgoz S, Hayes D, Yu TH (2008) Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change. Science, 319 ( 5867),  1238-1240. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861


Wicke, B., Verweij, P., Van Meijl, H., Van Vuuren, D.P., Faaij, A.P.C., 2012. Indirect land use change:review of existing models and strategies for mitigation. Biofuels 3(1), 87-100


Deng, L., Liu, G., Shangguan, Z., 2014. Land-use conversion and changing soil carbon stocks in China’s ‘Grain-for-Green’ Program: a synthesis. Global Change Biology (2014) 20, 3544–3556, doi: 10.1111/gcb.12508