Reporting on Marginal Lands for Bioenergy Feedstock Production: a Modest Proposal

BioEnergy Research, 2014, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 1060-1062.

Brian K. Richards, Cathelijne R. Stoof, Ian J. Cary, Peter B. Woodbury.

  1. Department of Biological & Environmental Engineering, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA and
  2. Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA.



Growing bioenergy feedstocks can provide a long-term sustainable production system for marginal land resources and is essential for minimizing food vs. fuel competition for prime croplands. However, the term “marginal” is too often used in research reports without being defined. We here suggest that clearly specifying the biophysical factors and agroeconomic context contributing to marginality will greatly enhance the utility and comparability of published research.

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Significance statement:

Discussions of renewable bioenergy feedstock production frequently cite the use of marginal agricultural lands in order to minimize food vs. fuel competition on prime farmlands. However, “marginal” is often used in a subjective sense for less-than-ideal lands without sufficient specificity. This vague and subjective use of “marginal” to describe non-prime land is not new: in 1932, Peterson and Galbraith lamented that “the word marginal has perhaps been too glibly used in recent years … [as] little more than a convenient expression for land that is barren, rough, inaccessible, or possessed of other undesirable characteristics or relationships.” They pointed out that “marginal” is an economic term that represents the point where potential returns at best break even with the costs of production. Analysis of literature showed that use of the term marginal in the context of bioenergy is rapidly increasing, although often without sufficient qualification.

Our modest proposal is simply that authors reporting on marginal soils and marginal lands clearly state the context, definition, and specifics of marginality. Reporting of soil series and related taxonomic information is essential for describing the soils in question, but this alone is not sufficient. This is because marginality is not a fixed quantitative threshold but rather a relative ranking that reflects the effect of multiple biophysical characteristics on the costs and sustainability of production in a given agroeconomic context. Changes in the agroeconomic context thus can change whether or not a given soil is considered marginal, so highlighting those specific physical characteristics that prevent profitability in the production system(s) being described is helpful.

Clear specification of both the biophysical factors and the present agroeconomic context will better inform the reader, aid in the re-assessment of findings in light of different crops or changing economic conditions, and will facilitate broader comparisons of studies conducted on marginal lands. Given the essential role of marginal lands in bioenergy production, the long-term usefulness of research publications can be improved by clearly defining both the biophysical and economic contexts that render their study sites marginal.


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