Ecocentric

As Crop Prices Rise, Farmland Expands—and the Environment Suffers

As corn and soybeans became more valuable, farmers plowed more land—and disturbed native grasslands along the way

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American farmers, as the recent Super Bowl ad showed, are just simple, hard-working folk, scratching a living from the land. Right? Except for the hard-working part, don’t believe it. Farmers are capitalists, just as much as their cousins in the big city. Case in point: as the price of crops like corn and soybeans has risen considerably in recent years—thanks to increased demand, both for food and as feedstocks for biofuel—farmers have been planting more of them. Supply and demand–it’s Econ 101 at its purest. (With the exception of the billions upon billions of dollars worth of market-distorting subsidies that are part of the agriculture sector. But that’s grist for another post.)

If a farmer wants to increase the amount of grain they produce, he really only has a couple of options. He can try to squeeze more crop out of the land he’s already farming, which is something American farmers have been pretty good at. (Corn yields per acre have increased by more than two and a half times since 1960.) Or he can expand the amount of land that he’s farming, by converting or buying non-farmed land and putting it into cultivation. Land, after all, is the raw material of agriculture, like steel and rubber are the raw materials of a car. More land means more crops. Add in the fact that funding has been declining for the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to protect wildlife by keeping land uncultivated.

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According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that’s exactly what’s happened to the western end of the great U.S. corn belt. Researchers from South Dakota State University crunched the numbers and found that 1.3 million acres of grassland in disappeared between 2006 and 2011 in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. The grassland was converted to cropland, as farmers expanded their territory in an effort to cash in—and I mean that in a totally non-pejorative sense—on the boom in crop prices. In South Dakota and Iowa, as much as 5% of grassland per year was converted to farmland.

As lead author Christopher Wright told NPR, “This is kind of the worst-kept secret in the Northern Plains.” You can literally see the land being converted by the plow. But as the study goes onto state, turning grassland to cropland can have negative consequences for the larger environment:

For instance, it’s bad news for wildlife, because corn fields are much less inviting habitat for a wide range of wild creatures, from ground-nesting birds to insects, including bees. Corn and soybean fields are increasingly encroaching into the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas and Minnesota, the most important breeding habitat for waterfowl in North America.

Farmland—especially American farmland—is great for producing food that supports human beings. But it’s not so great for supporting other species—at least compared to native grasslands. (And it’s not just a problem for the U.S. The world may need to feed some 9 billion people by mid-century, which could mean doubling food production from current levels. Farming already covers nearly 40% of the planet’s land area. If that doubling is achieved by significantly expanding the amount of the planet under the plow, well, there really won’t be much wilderness left to save. We’ll be living on Planet Corn Belt.

(MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable)

11 comments
DrDirt
DrDirt

The author should get his facts straight. 

The Conservation Reserve Program was designed to decrease the amount of highly erodible cropland in production, not to protect wildlife; that was an unexpected benefit.

There are laws that protect wetlands (Swampbuster provision of the 1985 Food Security Act) from being converted to crop land. Thus the Prairie Potholes themselves are protected. The migratory fowl forage in (get food from) the neighboring crop lands. 

Land (non-water surfaces) occupies about 25% of the earth's surface. Of that land, about half (12.5% of the earth's surface) is in high mountain ranges and polar ice caps, and is not useful for agriculture. Of the remaining land surface, about 3/4 has a physical, climate, or chemical limitation that prevents crop production without significant economic investment. What remains, about 1/8 of the land surface (1/32 of the earth's total surface), is available for producing food, fiber and feed/forage crops. 

About 38% of the land is considered agricultural land, but about 26% of that is in permanent pasture, producing food for animals, leaving about 12% to produce food and fiber (cotton) for humans. So the author misinterprets the statistic that 40% is in farmland.

These statistics are readily available from the UN-FAO and the USDA-NRCS National Resource Inventory. 

Teacher/Farmer
Teacher/Farmer

My take (probably colored quite a bit from the slant of the first paragraph) was that farmers were getting so much more money for their crops (yes prices are up but that doesn't necessarily mean profits are up) they were destroying important habitats to get more money by farming more land. Note: CRP is a government program but is one of those "subsidies" the author will use as "grist for another post." As a science teacher and a farmer I just have problems with this article because it is full of fallacies. For example, the study said that 1.3 million acres of grassland disappeared between 2006 and 2011. The author then states it was all converted to farmland. But not being able to see the actual study or journal article I can't tell if that is actually what the study found, or if the author simply skipped the fact that there are other reasons why the grassland could have been lost (changing ecosystem due to climate change, ecological succession, habitat loss due to residential/commercial development, etc.). When I go through a critical thinking method as I'm reading this article, just like I ask my students to do, I really question what he's written.

Teacher/Farmer
Teacher/Farmer

Just a quick question (haha, I KNOW that won't happen)...How can we as farmers be both wrong for participating in CRP and "getting paid not to farm" and wrong for taking land out of CRP when it becomes economically beneficial to? This article is very brief and confusing as to if the land was previously farmed before the CRP or not, why the land is considered marginal, and the hyperlink to the study in the article actually leads to another press article, not the original study/journal article (which I'd like to see). I'm not saying the native grasslands are not incredibly important to protect (anyone who really knows me knows my stance is pretty much opposite of this) but before farmers get smeared with a label of lazy greedy capitalists no matter what we do, I'd like to have a little more transparency about where the author is getting his information and what the SDSU study actually says.

surething1050
surething1050

All this is the result of bio-fuel. To begin with, a product that costs more to produce than it may be worth, depending on the current price of oil.

It is taking around 40% of the US corn production thus driving the price of corn up. Higher corn prices cause a rise in the price of too many things to list here but notably beef, pork and chicken. Other grain prices like wheat, oats, soybeans and rice also tend to follow the upward spiral of the corn price. All this so that our government can tweet that the US is becoming more self sufficient on fossil fuels. The government also subsidizes the bio-fuel production making it even more costly. Bio-fuel is also labeled a 'green' product. A statement that is questioned by many and is probably not accurate. Bio-fuel is also damaging to many of the engines that are using it thus driving the economic cost of a gallon up even more. The best thing that could happen would be to discontinue bio-fuel production and let land usage and grain prices settle back down.

jsmith
jsmith

Some additional important factors are not  mentioned here.  The grasslands are a highly evolved ecosystem with deep complex roots that locks carbon dioxide in the soil, absorbs water, and survives drought well.  Grazing animals were part of this system. When farmers plow these grasslands for food or fuel crops, they replace this with shorter-rooted plants and release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the air.  They are taking the risk of drought and a poor crop because prices are high, new hybrids of crops are more drought-tolerant, and they can dump fertilizer on them to improve their yield as well.  If their crops do fail, they have federal crop insurance (taxpayers) backing them up. Unfortunately, if there are heavy rains, there is not the deep grass root system in place, and runoff of water, soil, and all the applied chemicals into the rivers is high. This stuff finds its way down the Mississippi, where it can contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Food for thought, no pun intended.  I beg to differ with the opinion expressed implying that the grasslands are, or were, a vast expanse of nothingness.  Learn about them.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Some of our vast area of unused and under-used land might be called wilderness and it should be preserved.  However, much of it is unproductive nothingness, and saving it is for the benefit of those who are offended by the sight of productive enterprise, that being farming in the present context.

Yes, we will be called on to feed 9 Billion, or watch out for the chaos.  We might be still fighting serious communism in South America if Norman Borlag had not expanded agricultural productivity to keep up with population growth until now.  But feeding 9 Billion is going to require more of his kind of thinking, which, we have to guess, would  involve making best possible use of available land.

Making the United States into a competitive producer of goods is going to be tough, and expanding agriculture is a way of  bringing on prosperity, which we might not otherwise see. 

GrantHarmon
GrantHarmon

Please don't even remotely suggest that we stop procreating.  That goes against my archaic religious beliefs.

mjparme
mjparme

I don't believe the 40% statistic. Citation needed!

JonGibson
JonGibson

The faster we can cause a catastrophic collapse of Earth's ecosystems, the sooner it can heal itself with us gone.

jdyer2
jdyer2

Nothing new here that isn't going on in many other places all over the world.  Us human locusts chomp, chomp, chomping our way through the world's ecosystem until it collapses.  Nothing to see here, move along.....

GrantHarmon
GrantHarmon

@mjparme i agree.  my preliminary research indicates it is pretty inaccurate