An in-depth analysis of U.S. land use patterns released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows total cropland decreased by 34 million acres from 2002 to 2007, the lowest level since USDA began collecting this data 1945.

The USDA report also shows significant increases in forestland, grassland and rangeland during the five-year period.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) said the new report is one more addition to the mounting body of evidence that proves increased ethanol production has not resulted in expansion of total U.S. cropland or a decline in grassland and forest.

“Using real data from the real world, this report from USDA shows yet again that U.S. cropland is not expanding in response to increased ethanol demand,” said RFA President Bob Dinneen.

“The report also shows that forest and grassland increased dramatically during a period when ethanol production more than tripled. This is more proof that the wild predictions of ethanol causing cropland expansion and conversion of forest and grassland are just plain wrong.”

Meanwhile, the report shows land dedicated to urban areas and special-use areas (roads, industrial areas, rural residences, etc.) increased dramatically.

“It is ironic the land use debate has fixated on biofuels, when the actual culprit of land conversion has clearly been urban and suburban sprawl,” Dinneen said. “Subdivisions full of mini-mansions, big box stores, shopping malls, and parking lots are encroaching on productive farmland across the country.”

According to the authors, “Urban land acreage quadrupled from 1945 to 2007, increasing at about twice the rate of population growth over this period. Land in urban areas was estimated at 61 million acres in 2007, up almost 2 percent since 2002 and 17 percent since 1990 (after adjusting the 1990 estimate for the new criteria used in the 2000 Census).”

The estimated acreage of grassland pasture and range increased by 27 million acres (almost 5 percent) between 2002 and 2007, while forest-use land increased 20 million acres (3 percent) from 2002 to 2007, “continuing a trend that became evident in 2002 and reversing an almost 50-year downward trend.”

RFA encourages the policymakers and regulators responsible for penalizing crop-based biofuels for indirect land use change to take a close look at the new USDA report. “There is simply no substitute for real data,” Dinneen said.

“Our renewable energy policies and regulations should be based on what is actually happening on the ground, not on hypothetical results from black box economic models.”

The USDA report is available here.