Biofuels Policy Helping Destroy U.S. Grasslands At Fastest Rate Since 1930s, Boosting Threat of Dust-Bowlification

Percentage of grasslands converted into corn or soybean fields between 2006 and 2011

The ramp up in biofuel production has thus far been a major misfire in the fight against climate change. By driving up the price of corn and other biofuel sources, standards passed in the United States and Europe requiring a certain level of biofuel use have encouraged producers to dedicate more corn to ethanol production and less to food supplies.

Meanwhile, production of biofuel crops is displacing production of food crops on available land, and encouraging deforestation in the developing world. All of which in turn intensifies the problem of global food insecurity.

Thanks to a new study from South Dakota State University, we can add another negative from biofuel policy: Accelerated destruction of grasslands in America’s Western Corn Belt (WCB) region — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.

According to Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly, the study’s authors, conversion of grassland to corn and soy production between 2006 and 2011 has proceeded at a pace comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In sum, we found a net decline in grass-dominated land cover in the WCB totaling nearly 530,000 hectares (approx. 1.3 million acres). This change was concentrated in two states, South Dakota and Iowa, with the majority of grassland conversion occurring in the WCB’s three western states relative to the core corn/soy growing areas in Iowa and Minnesota.

Grassland loss from 2006 to 2011

As Brad Plumer at the Washington Post notes, a number of converging factors are driving this change: Subsidized crop insurance, as well as insufficient rewards for preserving grassland from conservation programs, are contributing along with the price boost in biofuels. But the latter is especially ironic, given that grasslands are themselves able to store carbon from the atmosphere better than cropland. So expanding biofuel crop production into grasslands specifically further dilutes biofuels’ already dubious benefits.

The destruction of grasslands is also part of the poor overall land management and climate change that’s contributing to the threat of “dust-bowlification” in the western and plains regions of the United States. As warming drives higher temperatures, heat waves, and more extremes between deluge and drought, that area of the country is increasingly left drier for longer. The loss of grasslands leave soil more vulnerable to erosion, and less able to hold and buffer water flows. That creates the possibility of a repeat of the Dust Bowls of the 1930s is growing, with all the attendant threats to food security.

In fact, Wright and Wimberly include the ominous note rates of grassland conversion this high “have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s.”

22 Responses to Biofuels Policy Helping Destroy U.S. Grasslands At Fastest Rate Since 1930s, Boosting Threat of Dust-Bowlification

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    We’ve known for a while that biofuels don’t do anything about global warming, and now it appears that they are worse than gasoline:

    The persistence of this failed technology is a tribute to corruption. Biofuels can now join oil, gas, and coal as discredited power sources that are still being used thanks to influence peddling. We need political leaders who take notice, and act. And yeah, I know, good luck with that one.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    We need to grow algae in the desert in sealed bioreactors to minimize evaporation. Of course, if all the ostriches aren’t willing to develop cheaper algae growing practices or even to look at the subject, or even to report on it, the idea doesn’t even exist so how can we do anything? Woe is us! (wring hands) (pout on the floor) (ask for more money for something irrelevant to what we need)

  3. Short-range hope is fading fast. However, here’s a note of long-range hope. Wes Jackson has developed prairie grass/grain crop hybrids (not GMOs) at his Land Institute.

    Like prairie grass itself, the hybrids have enormous root systems that can store copious amounts of carbon. They are also perennials, so the food just keeps coming — it is harvested by coppicing (like bamboo). Also they are tough as hell and drought resistant.

    After the not-so-hopeful destruction of the prairies begins to force 1930’s style migrations — I’m guessing within five years — we at least have a solution on hand if the government decides to start getting its act together.

    Meanwhile, ethanol subsidies must STOP!

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Biofuel corn always did take as much fossil fuel to grow as it produced. If not for the subsidies, biofuel wouldn’t work.

  5. anders strandberg says:

    Not only bad that food prices has been driven up by biofuels etc. The sooner the world get a wake up call the better…

    Also easier to switch from biofuels to food than producing food on degraded land, gives the system a wake up call as well as som slack.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    The net change is about two thousand square miles of land. That is actually a tiny shift compared to the hundreds of thousands of square miles in either crops or grassland.

    These states typically have around ninety percent of their land in farms; Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. Iowa has 90% in crops alone.

    The danger of dust-bowlification is already enormous, just based on how much land is already in annual crops.

  7. The study referenced in this post relies on hard-to-interpret satellite imagery to come up with estimates, which are, by the authors’ own admission imprecise.

    For a more detailed takedown, take a look at this rebuttal from the Renewable Fuels Association:

    While this study leaves us with more questions than answers, here is what we do know is happening on America’s prairies: the relentless hunt for fossil fuels is having a devastating effect on land, air and water. Developing shale oil in the Dakotas for example is poisoning the soil and water, while “flaring” – or burning excess natural gas, a byproduct of extracting oil from rock formations – is spewing carbon dioxide into the air.

    If we are serious about protecting our natural resources, we need to address our addiction to oil and support clean alternatives like renewable fuel.

  8. Dick Smith says:

    It’s a hard to reconcile your opinion that it’s a “tiny shift” with the author’s opinion that the 5-year-shift rates were comparable to deforestation in the Amazon, Mayalsia and Indonesia–from which I inferred, he’s saying, it’s an “alarming” rate.

    Since I respect your comments as very informed, factual and constructive, I was hoping you could elaborate a little more–perhaps with a few actual numbers.

    Your takeaway messages are quite different.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You mustn’t underestimate the malevolence of the powers-that-be. While you and I and other ‘bleeding-hearts’ may find rising global food prices and spreading under-nourishment to be bad things, Western Machiavellians see the opportunity to foment civil strife in countries long targeted for regime change, or who are growing too independent of Western diktat, or growing too close to the Chinese, or whose raw materials are coveted by the West. The control of the global food chain, to exert ‘influence’ over the world, has been an oft expressed geo-strategic policy of the USA, and bio-fuels were plainly a disaster from the very beginning, and harshly condemned straight off for their effect on food prices, yet they are pursued without hesitation. Cui bono?

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Degraded land can be restored to vitality by simple organic techniques, practised by farmers for millennia. Soil fertility is particularly improved by storing carbon, eg from biochar, so it’s a ‘win-win’. The AgriBusiness Moloch must be kept far off, preferably on Phobos or Deimos, while we work at it.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Dick Smith,

    Fair enough. “Tiny” being about the percentages.

    What could be said more carefully (based partly on the map) is that parts of Iowa and the Dakotas changed over from grassland at rates that exceeded the rate of loss of Amazon rainforest. It is not correct to say that the whole area experienced a shift at the rate of the rainforest.

    What is dreadful are the areas of cropland (then and now) which are used for ethanol instead of food. 20% of Minnesota’s corn crop goes for ethanol.

    If we want to look at risk of dust- bowlification, the big picture is that we have a great deal of land that is being used for annual crops, of which ethanol-corn is only part of the risk.

    I’ve put some links to information on the areas involved in farming and ranching, as well as the loss of rainforest in the Amazon, on my blog page, as the links were too many to post as a CP comment, without going into moderation limbo. The post is “supporting material for comment on land use.”

  12. Joan Savage says:

    The correct link for my blog is above.

    maybe “bogspot” (the typo in upstream ID) was indicative of my state of mind.

  13. Joe Romm says:

    Sadly, corn ethanol ain’t renewable.

  14. clays says:

    Energy industry officials have no shortage of excuses on why they can’t move forward on biofuels. In a recent BBC article, one unnamed industry official asserted that “there’s simply not enough foodstuff available and not enough land to grow it on” to keep up with the “growing demand for [grains] used to produce biodiesel.”

    But the facts don’t back up their arguments. In the face of growing energy demands from China and India and global population growth, an international corn shortage isn’t possible anytime soon:

    First, developing a biofuel economy can actually help reduce hunger and poverty

  15. clays says:

    We should aggressively pursue domestic pollution-free renewable biofuels, such as biodiesel and ethanol from switchgrass, which can be grown here in Montana. This new industry would provide an economic boom for Eastern Montana, without turning it into a sacrifice zone.
    -Joe Romm 2006

  16. clays says:

    seems we’re paying the price for our action.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Bogs are very useful ecosystems Joan as I’m sure you know, and we can’t all be radiating heat and light all the time, cheers, ME

  18. Joe Romm says:

    Well, yes!

  19. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks ME

    There’s nothing quite like bouncing on the floating sphagnum moss mat over a peat bog. I indeed feel cheered just to think of it.

  20. clays says:

    Bio-fuels was once pushed by TP as the way to salvation, and anyone who disagreed was maligned as some evil corporate shill.

    Why should we listen to anything TP puts forward as a solution?

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I do some of my best ruminating in bogs, and, once I get that bio-digester up and running, I’ll have my own source of cooking gas, as well.