The Impact of Biofuel Growth on Agriculture: Why is the Range of Estimates so Wide?

Posted on October 14, 2011

The rapid expansion of biofuel production has generated considerable interest within the body of empirical economic literature that has sought to understand the impact of biofuel growth on the global food economy. While the consensus within the literature is that biofuel emergence is likely to have some effect on future world agricultural market, there is a considerable range in the estimated size of the impact. Despite the importance of this topic to policy makers, there has been no study that has tried to reconcile the differences among various outlook studies. This paper undertakes an in-depth review of some key outlook studies which quantify the impacts of biofuels on agricultural commodities, and which are based on either general-equilibrium (GE) or partial-equilibrium (PE) modeling approaches. We attempt to reconcile the systematic differences in the estimated impacts of biofuel production growth on the prospective prices and production of three major feedstock commodities, maize, sugar cane, and oilseeds across these studies. Despite the fact that all models predict positive impacts on prices and production, there are large differences among the studies. Our findings point to a number of key assumptions and structural differences that seem to jointly drive the variations we observe, across these studies. The differences among the PE models are mainly due to differences in the design of scenarios, the presence or absence of biofuel trade, and the structural way in which agricultural and energy market linkages are modeled. The differences among the GE models are likely to be driven by model assumptions on agricultural land supply, the inclusion of the by-products, and assumptions on crude oil prices and the elasticity of substitution between petroleum and biofuels.

Wei Zhang, Elaine Yu, Scott Rozelle, Jun Yang, Siwa Msangi

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The Impact of Biofuel Growth on Agriculture: Why is the Range of Estimates so Wide?