Goodbye grasslands, hello corn and soy

Tom Philpott at Mother Jones posted a highly informative piece yesterday about the conversion of grasslands to corn and soy farms in states like the Dakotas and Iowa. Summarizing the findings of a new scientific paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, he writes that

All told, nearly 2 million acres of grassland—an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined—succumbed to the plow between 2006 and 2011, [the researchers] found. Just 663,000 acres went from corn/soy to grassland during that period, meaning a net transfer of 1.3 million acres to the realm of King Corn.

The territory going under the plow tends to be “marginal,” the authors write—that is, much better for grazing than for crop agriculture, “characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought.”

When farmers manage to tease a decent crop out of their marginal land, they’re rewarded. But if the crop fails, they’re guaranteed a decent return.

So why would farmers plow up such risky land? Simple: Federal policy has made it a high-reward, tiny-risk proposition. Prices for corn and soy doubled in real terms between 2006 and 2011, the authors note, driven up by federal corn-ethanol mandates and relentless Wall Street speculation. Then there’s federally subsidized crop insurance, the authors add. When farmers manage to tease a decent crop out of their marginal land, they’re rewarded with high prices for their crop. But if the crop fails, subsidized insurance guarantees a decent return. Essentially, federal farm policy, through the ethanol mandate and the insurance program, is underwriting the expansion of corn and soy agriculture at precisely the time it should be shrinking.

For the full post, which offers great links (including one to the PNAS article) and explains why this loss of grasslands is problematic, head here.

Change in Corn Plantings

Habitat loss occurs when native grassland is “broken,” or plowed for crop production (this is frequently called sodbusting). Similarly, pastureland, which is more intensively managed forage land that may have been previously cropped but is now used for grazing, is often plowed and put into crop production. Most often, the grassland being converted in the Prairie Pothole Region is land that had been used to graze livestock or deemed unsuitable for growing crops. Caption and image by NWFblogs via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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