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King Corn Mowed Down 2 Million Acres of Grassland in 5 Years Flat


Business  (tags: climate, climate-change, climatechange, CO2emissions, conservation, environment, greenhousegases, protection, Sustainabililty, research, nature, science, farming, ethics, corporate, business, americans, abuse, marketing, money, politics, society, Sustaina )

JL
- 577 days ago - motherjones.com
In a post last year, I argued that to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows.



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JL A. (275)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 8:34 am


Mother Jones
King Corn Mowed Down 2 Million Acres of Grassland in 5 Years Flat
The rate of grass-to-corn conversion in the US is comparable to rainforest destruction in the Amazon and Asia, a new report finds.

By Tom Philpott | Wed Feb. 20, 2013 3:01 AM PST

Corn and soy fields are rapidly swallowing up grassland in the western corn belt.

In a post [1] last year, I argued that to get ready for climate change, we should push Midwestern farmers to switch a chunk of their corn land into pasture for cows. The idea came from a paper [2] by University of Tennessee and Bard College researchers, who calculated that such a move could suck up massive amounts of carbon in soil—enough to reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 36 percent. In addition to the CO2 reductions, you'd also get a bunch of high-quality grass-fed beef (which has a significantly healthier fat profile than the corn-finished stuff [3]).

Turns out, farmers in the Midwest are doing just the opposite. Inspired by high crop prices driven up by the federal corn-ethanol program—as well as by federally subsidized crop insurance that mitigates their risk—farmers are expanding the vast carpet of corn and soy that covers the Midwest rather than retracting it. That's the message of a new paper [4] (PDF) by South Dakota State University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

They looked at recent land-use changes in what they call the "western corn belt"—North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska between 2006 and 2011. What they found was that grasslands in that region are being sacrificed to the plow at a clip "comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia." According to the researchers, you have to go back to the 1920s and 1930s—the "era of rapid mechanization of US agriculture"—to find comparable rates of grassland loss in the region. All told, nearly two million acres of grassland—an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined—succumbed to the plow between 2006 and 2011, they found. Just 663,000 acres went from corn/soy to grassland during that period, meaning a net transfer of 1.3 million acres to the realm of King Corn.

The territory going under the plow tends to be "marginal," the authors write—that is, much better for grazing than for crop agriculture, "characterized by high erosion risk and vulnerability to drought."
When farmers manage to tease a decent crop out of their marginal land, they're rewarded. But if the crop fails, they're guaranteed a decent return.

So why would farmers plow up such risky land? Simple: Federal policy has made it a high-reward, tiny-risk proposition. Prices for corn and soy doubled in real terms between 2006 and 2011, the authors note, driven up by federal corn-ethanol mandates [5] and relentless Wall Street speculation [6]. Then there's federally subsidized crop insurance, the authors add. When farmers manage to tease a decent crop out of their marginal land, they're rewarded with high prices for their crop. But if the crop fails, subsidized insurance guarantees a decent return. Essentially, federal farm policy, through the ethanol mandate and the insurance program, is underwriting the expansion of corn and soy agriculture at precisely the time it should be shrinking.

And the stakes are high. Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture released a 186-page report [7] (PDF) called Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States." The authors mainly concerned themselves with the question of whether our current system of corn/soy-dominated agriculture can be sustained in the context of rising temperatures. The answer is less than comforting. In the short term, the authors conclude, the US agricultural system is "expected to be fairly resilient to climate change." But by mid-century, when "temperature increases are expected to exceed 1°C to 3°C and precipitation extremes intensify," the authors expect to see significant yield declines for major US crops.

The most major US crops, of course, are corn and soy, which now blanket nearly half of US farmland. Tragically, the USDA report never analyzes how this reliance on two crops makes us more vulnerable to climate change—or entertains the idea of making the nation more resilient and food secure by diversifying away from them.
Source URL: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/02/king-corn-gobbles-climate-stabilizing-grassland-midwest

Links:
[1] http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/04/our-corn-driven-agriculture-vulnerable-climate-change
[2] http://www.motherjones.com/files/hellwinckel_phillips_carbonmanagement.pdf
[3] http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/10
[4] https://www.motherjones.com/files/pnas201215404_nwow5w1.pdf
[5] http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/01/how-us-eu-biofuel-policy-beggars-global-south
[6] http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/09/un-wall-street-speculation-fuels-global-hunger
[7] http://www.usda.gov/oce/climate_change/effects_2012/CC%20and%20Agriculture%20Report%20%2802-04-2013%29b.pdf
 

Sue H. (7)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 9:07 am
Frightening. :(...
 

JL A. (275)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 9:20 am
You cannot currently send a star to Sue because you have done so within the last week.
 

Roger Garin-michaud (62)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 1:33 pm
noted, thanks !
 

JL A. (275)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 2:18 pm
You are welcome Roger!
 

Theodore Shayne (56)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 3:58 pm
Yes and it's all GMO.
 

JL A. (275)
Wednesday February 20, 2013, 4:54 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Theodore because you have done so within the last week.
 

LucyKaleido ScopeEyes (80)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 3:36 am
I can't find a single mention of the fact that all this corn & soy are GMO!

And that is the BIGGEST problem of US Agriculture.

Right on, Theodore & JLA!
 

Mitchell D. (131)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 9:07 am
Ever since that warmly prescient president, G.W. Bush, made that comment in his State of the union message, about the corn-ethanol connection the growing of corn has skyrocketed. Was there anything he overlooked in his work to feed the Plutocrats in the power industry? I have to stop now.
 

Natasha Salgado (520)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 10:29 am
Unbelievable...Thanks
 

Past Member (0)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 10:31 am
Terrible terrible news. It's bad for the cows, it's bad for the earth, and in the long run it's bad for business. But people are blind to these things in the face of instant cash. What a shame.
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 10:56 am
You cannot currently send a star to Mitchell because you have done so within the last week
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 11:59 am
You cannot currently send a star to Natasha because you have done so within the last week
 

Pogle S. (88)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 2:24 pm
Disgusting! Big business is destroying everything it touches but will it ever change?
 

Birgit W. (144)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 4:29 pm
Terrible!
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 5:17 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Birgit because you have done so within the last week.
 

Helen Porter (40)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 5:54 pm
I am appalled.
 

JL A. (275)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 7:39 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Zee because you have done so within the last week.
 

Hartson Doak (33)
Thursday February 21, 2013, 9:59 pm
I understand why farmers go for these Federal subsidies. They need to stay in business. But to grow GMO crops that are poisoning the soil that future crops will be grown on is like poisoning your own well. These are crops that feed the world. But, Europe has banned the import of GMO crops. Most of the rest of the world is moving in the same direction. What good then is this GMO corn? Just fuel. But, with more and more people going electric there is less and less need for the ethanol from the corn. Dead end.
 
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