Utilization of marginal land for growing dedicated bioenergy crops for second-generation biofuels is appealing to avoid conflicts with food production. This study develops a novel framework to quantify marginal land for the Contiguous United States (CONUS) based on a history of satellite-observed land use change (LUC) over the 2008-2015 period. Frequent LUC between crop and noncrop is assumed to be an indicator of economically marginal land; this land is also likely to have a lower opportunity cost of conversion from food crop to bioenergy crop production. We first present an approach to identify cropland in transition using the time series of Cropland Data Layer (CDL) land cover product and determine the amount of land that can be considered marginal with a high degree of confidence vs with uncertainty across the CONUS. We find that the biophysical characteristics of this land and its productivity and environmental vulnerability vary across the land and lie in between that of permanent cropland and permanent natural vegetation/bare areas; this land also has relatively low intrinsic value and agricultural profit but a high financial burden and economic risk. We find that the total area of marginal land with confidence vs with uncertainty is 10.2 and 58.4 million hectares, respectively, and mainly located along the 100th meridian. Only a portion of this marginal land (1.4-2.2 million hectares with confidence and 14.8-19.4 million hectares with uncertainty) is in the rainfed region and not in crop production and, thus, suitable for producing energy crops without diverting land from food crops in 2016. These estimates are much smaller than the estimates obtained by previous studies, which consider all biophysically low-quality land to be marginal without considering economical marginality. The estimate of marginal land for bioenergy crops obtained in this study is an indicator of the availability of economically marginal land that is suitable for bioenergy crop production; whether this land is actually converted to bioenergy crops will depend on the market conditions. We note the inability to conduct field-level validation of cropland in transition and leave it to future advances in technology to ground-truth land use change and its relationship to economically marginal land.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10794-10804
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 3 2021


  • Cropland Data Layer
  • biofuel production
  • land use change
  • marginal land
  • remote sensing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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