U.S. production of biofuels has increased fivefold in the past two decades, and nowhere has felt the impact more than the Midwest. While the expansion of biofuels in the region has brought economic benefits to some farmers, it also raises questions about the ultimate sustainability and equity of biofuels as an alternative fuel source in the U.S.

The U.S. currently uses approximately 180 million acres of prime farmland, mostly in Midwest states — including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin — to produce corn and soy, much of which are used for biofuels. Since 2007, these crops have expanded by close to 7 million acres, most likely due to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets targets for biofuel production.

An aerial view of corn being harvested by a farm machine and poured into tractor bins.
Large farm machines are used to harvest corn in the Midwest. The expansion of corn crops in this region to be used for biofuel production increases agricultural emissions and displaces land that could be used for other purposes. Photo by JamesBrey/iStock. 

Because of the emissions produced by land use change and the process of growing crops and refining biofuels, crop-based biofuels are not an effective tool to curb climate change. Growing corn and soy crops for biofuels displaces land that could be more effectively used to fight climate change or provide community benefits. For example, land devoted to biofuels could instead produce food, host low-carbon energy sources like solar and wind, or be used for restoration of forests or grasslands.

Beyond the climate impact, biofuel expansion also significantly impacts public health through air and water pollution. Plus, the economic benefits of the biofuels industry have been unequally distributed to larger farms, which may exacerbate long-standing inequities among Midwestern farmers.

As Midwestern policymakers and the public assess the future of biofuels in their region, there are four key factors to pay attention to:

1) Biofuels Crops Contribute Disproportionately to Midwestern Agricultural Emissions

The Midwest is one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, but as a result, it has an outsized greenhouse gas footprint. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the agriculture sector in the Midwest emitted 315 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2020 and agricultural lands sequestered approximately 38 MtCO2e, leading to net emissions of 278 MtCO2e. This makes up roughly 20% of total regional emissions, while nationally, agriculture is responsible for approximately 10% of all emissions. These emissions come from many sources including fertilizer production and use, animal manure management, on-farm energy use and emissions from land use change.

Corn and soybeans dominate the Midwest’s agricultural landscape. These crops are grown on 75% of the region’s arable land; between one-third and three-quarters of these crops are likely used to make biofuels, depending on the state. Because the Midwest produces so much corn and soy for ethanol and biodiesel, the biofuels industry contributes significantly to the region’s agricultural emissions.

Fertilizer production and use is by far the highest contributor to agricultural emissions based on EPA data, emitting roughly 180 MtCO2e in 2020, mostly in the form of nitrous oxide, or about 60% of total Midwestern agricultural emissions. In addition to being a major emissions source, fertilizer use also leads to drinking water contamination, soil degradation and algal blooms in bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico.

Because corn is a nitrogen-intensive crop, it requires heavy fertilizer application. Fertilizer use increases as corn for ethanol replaces other, less nitrogen-intensive crops. While there are opportunities for farmers to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by adopting practices like targeted fertilizer application, these interventions cannot eliminate emissions. Midwestern legislators hoping to tackle climate change in their state need to consider both current emissions from biofuel production and the likelihood of increased agricultural emissions if biofuels production expands.

2) Biofuel Crops Displace Natural Lands

Another major source of emissions and environmental degradation from biofuels is the conversion of natural lands, like forests and grasslands, to farms for crops such as corn and soy. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that acres devoted to corn and soy cultivation increased by 17% in the Midwest from 2008-2022, displacing other crops and natural lands. Further, one model estimates that the Renewable Fuel Standard caused 26% more conversion of natural land to cropland nationally than would have occurred without the policy.

A separate study found that 4.2 million acres of land were converted to cropland within 100 miles of biorefineries between 2008 and 2012, which suggests that this cropland expansion was likely caused by biofuel demand. Conversion of land to cropland not only spikes emissions, but also diminishes vital forests and grasslands, encroaches on already dwindling healthy ecosystems and leads to higher levels of water pollution.

3) Biofuels Contribute to Economic Inequities

Increased biofuels production may also leave small-scale farmers behind as larger, more consolidated farms are used to grow soy and corn. That impact could be felt the most amongst farmers of color.

A young farmer checks on soybean crops.
A young farmer checks on soybean crops. Young farmers have had trouble accessing full benefits from the new Renewable Fuel Standard, despite their role in feeding communities. Photo by DS70/iStock.

While the Renewable Fuel Standard contributed an estimated $14.1 billion in profits to the agricultural sector from 2005 to 2015, not all farmers have been able to equally access the profits from U.S. biofuels subsidies. 

While Midwestern farmers tend to be white (98%), male (67%) and above 55 years old (61%), this wasn’t always the case. Many Indigenous farmers and non-white farmers who historically occupied land in the Midwest have been pushed out of the agricultural sector due to systemic barriers, violence and discriminatory policies that made it difficult, if not impossible, to access finance and farm assistance.

Of the more than 12,000 farms operated by non-white farmers today, most are primarily small farms. Since corn and soy crops tend to be grown on larger farms, farmers of color with smaller operations may not receive economic benefits that biofuels bring to the Midwest.

Further expansion of biofuels also risks exacerbating the trend of farmland consolidation that is squeezing small, farms out of the market, since corn and soy are typically grown on large monocropping operations. Although biofuels policy does not single-handedly cause cropland consolidation in the Midwest, consolidated farmland growing monocultures tends to replace smaller farms with diversified crops. Midsize farms have historically been the economic backbone of many local communities, and their loss has accelerated economic and social challenges in the rural Midwest.

In an analysis of data from 1978 to 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists found “large crop farms are getting larger, small crop farms are getting smaller, and midsize crop farms are disappearing.” Over the almost four decades of the study, the total number of farms has decreased as farm size tripled. While cropland consolidation has decreased the number of farmers in all racial groups, the trend has been 2.5 times more severe for Black farmers.

Farmland consolidation also stresses agricultural communities by increasing farmland real estate prices and preventing small-scale farmers from purchasing or renting land. Because farmland continues to increase in value, corporations and wealthy individuals have invested in large swaths of farmland, which they rent to farmers at increasing prices.   

Future agricultural policy in the Midwest needs to support all farmers and environmentally-friendly farming systems, including small and medium-sized farms growing diversified crops. Future expansion of corn and soy cultivation could continue to exacerbate land loss for non-white farmers, as well as the loss of diversified farming systems. Policymakers need to assess whether additional support for biofuels may exacerbate, rather than improve challenges facing their constituents.

While analyzing trends in data is critical to understanding racial dynamics in farming, federal agricultural data is imperfect and may not always reflect the full story. Many farmers lack documented legal ownership of their land because of laws governing how land is passed down through generations, particularly Black and Native American farmers. One study found that Black farmers lost $326 billion worth of land in the 20th century due to discriminatory lending practices and legal difficulties that come with inheriting land that does not have a formal title, also known as heir’s property.

In addition, the majority of people working on U.S. farms are immigrants, with almost half being undocumented. Corn and soy production is highly mechanized, so it’s unlikely that undocumented workers make up a considerable portion of biofuels workers. However, this constitutes a major data gap.

Women are another major group that may not be accurately accounted for. Married white women farmers are more likely to have their husband designated as the primary producer or business owner and therefore may not be represented adequately in federal data.

Farming practices also vary by different groups. Women constitute roughly one-third of farmers, with white women occupying 95% of this share. Women famers grow a variety of crops, but there are racial trends in this subset; for example, compared to white women, women farmers of color tend to grow more vegetables. Black and Asian American and Pacific Island women also are more likely to operate smaller farms and are more likely to grow organic crops, but they are much less likely to be certified organic.

4) Biofuels Contribute to Community Health Risks

The lifecycle of biofuels, from crop production to refining, negatively affects water and air quality for Midwestern communities. For example, increased fertilizer use from expansion of corn and soy cultivation can lead to high concentrations of nitrates in the tap water of heavy agriculture areas. While these communities can see spikes in nitrate levels past the EPA limit of 10 parts per million (ppm), many average around 5 ppm, which still carries long-term health risks like cancer and birth defects. A report from the Environmental Working Group found Midwestern states have a high overlap between poor water quality and agricultural areas. A study in southeast Minnesota correlated agricultural expansion with well contamination, estimating that the conversion of grassland to agriculture from 2007 to 2012 increased the number of wells exceeding 10 ppm nitrate-nitrogen by 45%.

The process of refining biofuels also carries harmful impacts on resources and human health. Midwestern ethanol refineries are major greenhouse gas emitters, collectively releasing 17.4 MTCO2e in 2021. They also contribute air-polluting volatile organic compounds and ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory issues. Refining ethanol also requires high volumes of water, which is currently drawn from underground aquifers. There is a danger that production of biofuels will lead to a depletion of these aquifers and decreased drought resilience for communities. These concerns show that policymakers should adequately weigh public health dangers related to the entire lifecycle of biofuel cultivation, refining and use.

The Future of Biofuels in the U.S.

Biofuels have already had a significant impact on Midwestern environments and communities, yet political support for biofuels remains strong. Policymakers can, however, take steps to reduce the future environmental footprint and human impact of the industry. Trends in emissions, land use change, economic inequities and community health risks are all key dynamics that are often overlooked in biofuels policymaking.

To avoid these negative impacts, it will be necessary to place conservative limits on purpose-grown crops for biofuels. This is true both for biofuels used to power cars and for the expanding sustainable aviation fuel industry, which could drive vast expansion of land devoted to biofuels crops.

Note: For the purposes of this analysis, the Midwest includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.