Sustainable America Blog

A Rush to Grow Corn and Soy Is Overtaking America’s Grasslands

A recent report from Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University starts out with what should be a chilling observation:

High corn and soybean prices, prompted largely by demand for biofuel feedstocks, are driving one of the most important land cover/land use change (LCLUC) events in recent US history.

This change is happening a pace not seen since the 1930s when conversion of grasslands to croplands led to the devastation known as the Dust Bowl era. The study from South Dakota State University shows that from 2006 to 2011 some 1.3 million acres of grasslands were converted into fields for growing soy and corn. This is also the period during which biofuel mandates were set requiring gasoline refineries in America to include a portion of biofuel in their gas blends.

The biofuel-gas blend mandates were created with the intention of using biofuel from other renewable sources like cellulosic biofuel or algae biofuel. But reality has not met the original ideal, and with cellulosic biofuel still in its infancy, corn- and soy-based biofuels are the only viable alternative. This has driven the demand and price for both commodities higher, and has made it much more lucrative to grow corn and soy crops.

The net result is that states like Iowa and South Dakota have been seeing some 5% of their grassland pastures converted to cropland each year. To put the matter into perspective, the report’s authors state that the rate of grasslands loss in the Midwest is “comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.” And the environmental impacts could be significant. Studies have shown that grasslands hold carbon better than croplands, and a 2008 paper published in Science argued that this lower rate of carbon storage makes the emissions savings of using corn- or soy-based biofuel less impressive when there is a realistic life-cycle accounting.

The fears of a 21st century dust bowl are not unfounded. In their recent film “The Dust Bowl,” Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns interview the last remaining survivors of the 1930s disaster in hopes of learning from our past mistakes. Reading the history of this era it’s hard not to see the similarities. The offering of cheap land at the turn of the 20th century to settlers coincided with the opening of a lucrative new wheat market, the availability of gasoline-powered farm equipment and a relatively wet period in the Midwest. This series of events caused millions of acres of prairie grasslands to be converted into wheat fields at breakneck speed.

When the Great Depression hit, farmers hastily harvested more wheat in hopes of making money while they could, leaving wheat fields barren and exposed. Then, the wet period came to an end and a time of drought ensued. Winds hitting the open wheat fields spurred massive dust storms with millions of tons of earth being moved over a period of about 10 years.

One can realistically imagine a similar situation today given the continuing drought in the Midwest and the realities of climate change and increasingly erratic weather patterns.

Sustainable America promotes the research and development of second-generation biofuels like cellulosic biofuel to ease the demand for corn ethanol and ease the pressure on the food supply. We also support electric vehicles and natural gas vehicles as another means of reducing oil usage and polluting emissions in America. It will take a combination of efforts from a variety of technologies combined with a vigilant sensitivity to the competition between food and fuel to lead America into a sustainable and secure future.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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