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 Iowa alone, the losses are approaching 12 million hectares (almost 30 million acres) of tallgrass prairie.
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.
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.”