Short term economic gain for some people, long-term pain for everybody else?
Sounds about right.
I'd love to hear some input on this stuff from the people most affected, in Nebraska or Iowa.
Biofuel rush wiping out America’s grasslands at fastest pace since the 1930s
Posted by Brad Plumer
on February 20, 2013 at 10:00 am
America’s prairies are shrinking. Spurred on by the rush for biofuels, farmers are digging up grasslands in the northern Plains to plant crops at the quickest pace since the 1930s. While that’s been a boon for farmers, the upheaval could create unexpected problems.
A new study
by Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University finds that U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, driven by high crop prices and biofuel mandates (right). In states like Iowa and South Dakota, some 5 percent of pasture is turning into cropland each year.
It’s a big transformation in the heart of the country: The authors conclude that the rates of grassland loss are “comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.” And those changes are already having plenty of impacts.
For one, farmers are now growing crops on increasingly marginal land. In Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, corn and soy are planted in areas that are especially vulnerable to drought. But farmers take the risk because corn and soy have become so lucrative — and, in part, because the federal government offers subsidized crop insurance
in case of failure. (The study also finds evidence that many farmers are no longer enticed by federal conservation programs that pay for grassland cover.)
The loss of pasture itself could also have big environmental impacts. Studies have found
that grasslands hold carbon in their soil better than cropland does. So there’s a climate-change angle here. A 2008 paper
in Science argued that fuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel lose a portion of their carbon advantage over gasoline if farmers are simply digging up virgin grassland to grow the crops.
There’s a wildlife angle, too: The Prairie Pothole Region
, traversing Minnesota and the Dakotas, is one of the continent’s key breeding grounds for ducks and other ground-nesting birds. Tall grasses in the area help sustain a number of species and shield birds from predators. But corn fields are now encroaching on the habitat, and bird populations are dropping.
In recent years, some environmental groups have argued that it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to keep subsidizing this push into the prairies. A recent report
(pdf) from the Environmental Working Group, for instance, argues that Congress should scale back crop insurance for farmers who move into the country’s grasslands and wetlands. Farm groups, for their part, say
the insurance is vital for their work — instead, Congress should expand conservation programs.
And what about biofuels? Groups like EWG have criticized
ethanol mandates for pushing up corn and soybean prices and driving the crop boom. There’s a lot more hope for next-generation cellulosic biofuels
grown from switchgrass or other plants with a much smaller environmental footprint. Or biodiesel made from algae
, say. But until those become viable, the crop rush continues.