Grassland Plowed Up at Rates Not Seen In Nearly a Century

Native grassland across America’s Western Corn Belt–the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa–is being plowed up to plant row crops at a rate unprecedented since the 1920s. Our latest report in the March/April issue of The American Prospect, “Plowed Under,” by reporter Jocelyn Zuckerman, explores the causes of this dramatic expansion of row crops and its longterm impact on climate, wildlife, and the environment.

“While few seem to be aware of it, a massive shift is under way in the Western plains, with ramifications for the quality of our water and food, and, more fundamentally, the longterm viability of our farms,” Zuckerman writes, citing a study published in February 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that between 2006 and 2011, 1.3 million acres of native grassland had been plowed in order to plant corn and soybeans.

Relying on satellite data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), researchers found that the rates of land-use change in the region—up to 5.4 percent annually—parallel the deforestations taking place in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia, Zuckerman points out.

The prairie land being plowed is not easily replaceable, and provides crucial “ecosystems services” such as storing carbon, absorbing nutrient runoff (which would otherwise contribute to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico), and creating habitat for species like monarch butterflies and pheasants, both in decline. Without the diversity of plants prairies provide, bees and other pollinators could be severely affected, jeopardizing almonds and other fruit crops.

Government policies are mostly to blame for these expansions into marginal land, reports Zuckerman, who notes that much of the land in the Conservation Reserve Program, which paid farmers to retire certain marginal lands for 10 to 15 years, has not been renewed. She also points to the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard, requiring oil companies to blend ethanol—made by fermenting and distilling corn—into the gasoline supply. The mandate has risen every year, and is now close to 14 billion gallons, increasing the demand for corn.

In addition, the federal crop insurance program enables farmers to be paid 85 percent of projected revenue if their crop fails or prices plunge. Mismanagement of such policies seems to be contributing to the expansion into marginal lands. “People clear and plant in areas where they realize the soil and water conditions are poor, because they know they’ll get payouts anyway,” Zuckerman reports.

She notes that this phenomenon has been studied by the Environmental Working Group, which released a report in July 2013 describing a correlation between counties where conversions are focused on fragile land and those receiving the highest crop-insurance payouts. Between 2008 and 2011, the group reported, the 71 counties that lost more than 5,000 acres of wetlands and wetland buffers received an average payout of $10.1 million—more than four times the $2.3 million average across the 3,109 counties studied.

“We have fashioned a farm policy that incentivizes putting more under the plow,” Adam Warthesen, federal policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, tells Zuckerman. “And [the new] farm bill doubles down on that.”

You can read the full report here at The American Prospect and here on our Web site.