U.S. losing grasslands faster than deforestation in Brazil

The grasslands of the Great Plains, stretching from Texas into the Canadian prairies, are disappearing faster than the forests of Brazil as farmers try to cash in crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans. In a report released today, the World Wildlife Fund says 3.7 million acres of grassland were converted to cropland in 2015, more than twice as much as the 1.4 million acres of forestland in Brazil leveled for crops and livestock.

“Ramping up smart programs like Sodsaver and improving the way we manage crop insurance can help ensure we can provide enough food to feed our growing nation, while protecting areas critical to wildlife,” said the environmental group. It said its goal is no net loss of grasslands. There are roughly 366 million acres of intact grasslands in Plains, slightly more than half the original total.

The 2014 farm law included a so-called Sodsaver provision that requires farmers to pay sharply higher premiums for crop insurance on native grasslands that are converted to cropland in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. The government usually pays 62 cents of each $1 in premium for crop insurance; under Sodsaver, the subsidy is cut in half. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition lamented the provision does not apply to the southern Plains, where the Dust Bowl developed in the 1930s.

Some 53 million acres of grassland were converted to crops from 2009-15, an annual rate of 2 percent during a period that included the peak years of the agricultural boom that began in 2006, said the WWF in its Plowprint report, drawing on U.S. and Canadian data. The conversion rate dropped to 1 percent a year following the 2013 collapse in commodity prices.

In a story with the American Prospect in 2014, FERN reported that Plains grasslands were vanishing at the fastest rate since the 1920s, fueled by the boom in ethanol.

“Temperate grassland ecosystems are the least-protected biomes on the planet,” says the report. “Worldwide, these important habitats are being lost at an alarming rate due to a number of factors that include the production of food and fuel for a growing human population.”

The highest rates of land conversion during 2015 were in the “prairie pothole” region of the northern Plains in both the United States and Canada, and particularly in northern Montana and Saskatoon, said WWF.

Conversion to cropland reduces habitat for grassland birds and for pollinators such as bumblebees, said WWF. The populations of four species of birds have declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1960s.

“Much of the best cropland within this eco-region was plowed up years ago with a high percentage of today’s conversion occurring on soils that aren’t as productive for farming,” said the report. “Faced with the needs of a growing population, the best scenario is to explore policy and market drivers along with innovative methods for producing higher crop yields from the lands that are currently in production, rather than breaking new ground.”

Deforestation has increased in Brazil over the past couple of years, “following almost a decade of impressive declines,” said the Guardian in November 2015. Clearings were estimated at 5,831 square kilometers, equal to 1.44 million acres.