Report: Farm policies fuel grasslands destruction, undermine climate and biodiversity goals

The U.S.’s grasslands are critical habitats for pollinators and birds and hold vast amounts of carbon in their soils. But our agricultural policies — particularly the Renewable Fuel Standard and crop insurance subsidies — are incentivizing the rapid destruction of these ecosystems, the World Wide Fund for Nature said in a report published Monday. 

In 2020 alone, some 1.8 million acres of grasslands were lost — primarily plowed up to plant crops such as soy and corn. In all, some 70 percent of the U.S.’s tallgrass, mixed grass and shortgrass prairies have been destroyed. And large tracts of sagebrush grasslands are lost each year, due to invasive grasses that fuel wildfires. 

Despite the Biden administration’s commitment to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and reversing biodiversity loss, many of its agricultural policies undermine these goals, the report said. It urged reforms in the Renewable Fuel Standard and crop insurance programs in particular. 

The Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to lessen fossil fuel dependence and reduce emissions, but a growing body of evidence suggests it has actually done nothing to reduce emissions, and may have even driven them higher. That’s in part because it has spurred an increase in demand for corn and soy, which incentivizes farmers to plow up grassland to plant crops — releasing the carbon that grassland plants store deep in the ground and destroying habitat for insects, birds and other animals. 

The EPA has rules intended to safeguard against the conversion of grasslands to grow biofuel feedstocks, but they are ineffective, the report said. That’s because the agency only requires biofuels makers to report where their feedstocks were grown if total agricultural lands exceed a baseline of 402 million acres set in 2007, an approach called “aggregate compliance.” But since 2007, large amounts of cropland have been taken out of production for urban or suburban development, thereby creating space for millions of acres of grassland to be converted to cropland without triggering the regulations intended to protect these lands. 

The report urged the EPA to drop the “aggregate compliance” approach and instead require verification that any lands used to produce biofuel feedstocks were already in cultivation before 2007. 

The agency should also reassess its recent proposal to increase the amount of ethanol and other biofuels that oil refiners must blend into their fuels, the report said. The agency should set the volumes based on how much biofuel can be produced on lands that were already in cultivation in 2007. “Those volumes should be adjusted downward considerably,” the authors wrote.

Crop insurance subsidies are the other main driver of grassland conversion, the report said. The insurance, which minimizes risk to farmers in case of crop failure and is subsidized by the government, makes farmers more likely to plant crops on marginal land, including pasture and rangeland. It can also disincentivize farmers from putting acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, the report said. 

In six states, the government does have a program — Sodsaver — intended to reduce incentives for farmers to convert grasslands to crops. It lowers the amount of subsidies on premium payments on those acres from 50 percent to 30 percent. But these guardrails aren’t strong enough to offer meaningful protection, the report said. The next farm bill should make any native grassland converted to cropland after 2014 ineligible for crop insurance subsidies for 10 years. The provision should also be expanded nationwide, the report said.

And, in order to understand the full scale of grassland conversion and whether programs like Sodsaver are working, Congress should require USDA to publicly report how much grassland is being converted to cropland annually.

The 2023 farm bill presents other options for protecting grasslands, the report said, including by expanding the Conservation Reserve Program’s Grassland CRP and by enabling Tribal governments to directly administer more conservation programs on their land and by reducing or waiving cost-matching provisions for federal conservation programs.