Grasslands, forests converted to cropland at alarming rates

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The USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) recently released data reflecting that between 2011 and 2012, more than 398,000 acres (620 square miles, or roughly the size of Houston, Texas) of grasslands, forests and other lands were plowed, cleared or otherwise converted to cropland.

The USDA’s release of this type of data is believed to be unprecedented, and comes amid an ongoing debate about the severity and causes of ecologically-destructive conversion of land to cropland.

In addition to reaffirming researchers’ findings that land conversion has been exploding in the Western Corn Belt, the USDA data reveal that land conversion is happening at high rates in counties from Maine to California and from Oregon to Florida.

“This data shows that conversion of native grasslands is happening outside of the northern Great Plains,” said Julie Sibbing, director, National Wildlife Federation Agriculture and Forest program. “In fact, Nebraska had by far the largest amount of land converted to cropland production, and Texas and Kansas, major grassland states, also had large amounts of land converted to cropland, but would not be covered by the House farm bill language. To protect taxpayers and America’s grasslands, we need a Sodsaver provision that applies uniformly across the country.”   

Researchers have previously reported high rates of land conversion, driven by high crop prices in the last few years. Numerous economists and researchers have identified the Renewable Fuels Standard as a key factor behind higher crop prices. For instance, a widely-reported study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 1.3 million acres of grassland and wetland were converted to cropland in the Dakotas, Nebraska and parts of Minnesota and Iowa between 2006 and 2011 – land conversion rates that haven’t been seen since before the Dust Bowl.

Indeed, USDA’s data show that Nebraska had more land converted to cropland (54,876 acres) between 2011 and 2012 than any other state. “We knew Nebraska was losing our native prairie at frightening speed,” said Duane Hvorka, executive director, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, “but this new information shows how huge the problem is. To have lost more than 85 square miles of grassland in Nebraska in a single year is appalling.”

Other Midwest and Plains states topping the list of land conversion include South Dakota, Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Indiana and Minnesota. But also in the top ten were Florida, California and Georgia – states not often identified with high land conversion rates.

The USDA data comes as a Congressional conference committee will soon be convened to finalize a new Farm Bill. The Senate bill contains a provision called “Sodsaver,” which would help address the rapid loss of native grassland habitats by limiting crop insurance support on croplands converted from virgin grassland. The House has a similar provision, but limits the scope to only parts of five states in the Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains.


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