We at R Street do a lot of warning that our nation’s misguided crop insurance supports, in combination with the disastrous Renewable Fuel Standard, are distorting land and food markets, wreaking environmental havoc and adding billions to the taxpayer’s tab.
A new report from researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison published online by the journal Environmental Research Letters explores precisely how much damage has been done due to conversion of our nation’s most sensitive grasslands, despite the fact that these lands are actually unsuitable for farming.
The negative consequences of this transformation are myriad, with perhaps the most important environmental implications coming from the effect this new farming has on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
The entire report is short and easily digestible, so it’s certainly worth a read. But in case you don’t have the chance, here are the top five takeaways from what the report deems “the greatest transformation to cropland since the ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’ era of the 1970s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s prior.”
1. Farm acreage is expanding the most in marginal, environmentally sensitive areas; on lands traditionally used for livestock; and on lands with limited water availability. This obviously harms wildlife, injures ranchers, increases pollution from runoff and distorts water markets.
South Dakota and North Dakota experienced the greatest amount of new cultivation/ Here, expansion occurred primarily east of the Missouri river, especially concentrated in the Prairie Pothole Region, reinforcing the importance of previous studies focused on this region…. Croplands also substantially infilled the lesser-cultivated areas of Southern Iowa and Northern Missouri, a region characterized by steeply sloped hills normally reserved for livestock grazing. In western Kansas and the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, we found highly concentrated expansion hotspots, many of which are indicative of new, center-pivot irrigated fields. Located above the rapidly-depleting Ogallala aquifer, cropland expansion in this region raises substantial concerns about water use and sustainability.
2. Almost a quarter of these newly converted acres are areas with high amounts of carbon stored in the soil, which are now being released into the atmosphere.
Distinguishing long-term grasslands from other types of converted land is of high interest due to the elevated amounts of stored soil carbon and diverse native species these areas can often contain. We found 1.6 million acres of long-term (20 + year) unimproved grasslands were transformed to cropland during our recent four-year study period. Thus, over a quarter of converted grasslands and 22% of all land converted to crop production came from these longstanding prairie- and range-like locations.
3. We’re converting these lands at an incredibly rapid pace.
In total, the 16.8 million acres of individual crop increases contributed to 7.34 million acres of new conversion, resulting in an overall conversion ratio of 43%. That is, for every additional acre dedicated to a specific crop over the study period, total cropland expanded on average by 0.43 acres.
4. Due to the perverse incentives created by crop insurance subsidies and RFS, farmers increasingly are willing to farm on lands they probably wouldn’t farm on their own dime.
New expansion occurred most frequently on marginal land that had severe to very severe limitations to cultivation, whereas previous croplands were most concentrated on prime farmland characterized by fewer limitations. As a result, total marginal cropland area expanded at twice the rate of cropland on well-suited soil (1.5% versus 0.77%). Crops planted on land deemed unsuitable for cultivation also experienced high relative growth (1.1%) over the study period.
5. Which basically means we’re providing taxpayer-financed incentivizes to big agri-business to release an incredible amount of additional carbon into the atmosphere, equal to 11 percent of the current U.S. car fleet.
Estimated carbon emissions from corn and soybeans planted on recently converted land could range from 94 to 186 MMT CO2e, and may be closest to 131 MMT CO2e. The emissions from these crops alone would be equivalent to a year’s carbon dioxide release from 34 coal-fired power plants or an additional 28 million cars on the road.
The report highlights potential solutions, including expanding the recently revamped “Sodsaver” provisions in the farm bill that protect vulnerable grasslands in certain states. However, given the report’s damning findings, it seems Congress would do better to chuck the RFS altogether and dramatically ratchet down the subsidies to crop insurance recipients. Otherwise, we’ll continue to pay for our own destruction.