Marginal land has received wide attention for its potential to produce bioenergy feedstocks while minimizing diversion of productive agricultural land from food crop production. However, there has been no consensus in the literature on how to define or identify land that is marginal for food crops and beneficial for bioenergy crops. Studies have used different definitions to quantify the amount of such land available; these have largely been based on assumed biophysical thresholds for soil quality and productivity that are unchanging over space and time. We discuss the limitations of these definitions and the rationale for considering economic returns and environmental outcomes in classifying land as marginal. We then propose the concept of “socially” marginal which is defined as land that is earning close to zero returns after accounting for the monetized costs of environmental externalities generated. We discuss a broad set of criteria for classifying land as socially marginal for food crops and suitable for bioenergy crops; with these criteria, this classification depends on spatially varying and time-varying factors, such as climate and market conditions and policy incentives. While there are challenges related to identifying this marginal land, satellite and other large-scale datasets increasingly enable such analysis at a fine spatial resolution. We also discuss reasons why landowners might choose not to convert bioenergy-suitable land to bioenergy crops, and thus the need for policy incentives to support conversion of land that is socially beneficial for bioenergy crop production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1590-1609
Number of pages20
JournalGCB Bioenergy
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • bioenergy
  • biofuels
  • economically marginal
  • ecosystem services
  • land quality
  • marginal land
  • returns to land
  • socially marginal

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Waste Management and Disposal


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