Satellite Study Documents Vast Loss of Midwest Grasslands

America’s Midwest and Great Plains are often derisively described as fly-over country. And now unblinking, data-collecting satellites soaring over the western Corn Belt have recorded a devastating manmade environmental disaster.

Researchers from South Dakota State University caused a stir in the agricultural and media worlds last week with a satellite imagery-based study that found that from 2006 to 2011, U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres from grassland to industrial-scale corn and soybean production. The loss of this grassland is having adverse impacts on water quality, soil health and wildlife habitat in a region that includes the Iowa, Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Notably, they are professors at an institution widely regarded as being driven by “production” agriculture.

Their work bolsters the findings of a 2012 Environmental Working Group report – Plowed Under – that tracked land conversion in all 50 states. Both studies compellingly document the accelerating pace of grassland conversion, which is having dire consequences for the environment in the western Corn Belt and beyond.

The South Dakota researchers, Christopher K. Wright and Michael C. Wimberley, focused on grassland conversion in areas close to wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region – a critical Midwest flyway for migratory birds. They wrote that, “in South Dakota... 80% of grassland conversion is occurring within 500 m [meters] of neighboring wetlands.”

Wright and Wimberley additionally suspect that the increased conversion of marginal lands is resulting in widespread installation of subsurface tile drainage in the overly wet fields that are common in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Tile installation creates an agricultural sewer system that increases the likelihood of that polluting farm chemicals will drain rapidly into ditches and streams and beyond. In another recent report, Murky Waters, EWG’s researchers detailed how unregulated runoff from farm fields has widely fouled waters in Iowa, one of America’s most agriculture-intensive states.

It’s not like this massive land change has gone unnoticed. As Wright told NPR, “This is kind of the worst-kept secret in the Northern Plains.”

Now the secret is out, after NPR, Mother Jones, the Associated Press, Time and The Washington Post all covered the issue last week. But are Congressional lawmakers, who could change this destructive course, listening? 

In last year’s failed farm bill drafts, both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees were hunky-dory with cutting $7 billion from the Conservation Reserve Program, which works with farmers to keep vulnerable land out of cultivation. Since 2006, the amount of land enrolled in the program in the western Corn Belt has dropped by 3.3 million acres. The first thing members of Congress can do to slow the devastating loss of grassland is to stop slashing conservation funding at every turn.

One helpful provision would be an ironclad “sod saver” amendment that would protect grassland near wetlands by making producers pay more to insure crops planted on newly plowed-up land that is vulnerable to erosion and polluted runoff or is critical wildlife habitat.

The South Dakota researchers also noted that the western edge of the Corn Belt is an arid environment and suggested that producers are “willing to accept higher levels of drought risk in seeking higher cash returns.” They concluded:

Federal crop insurance and disaster relief programs mitigate this risk, creating incentives for converting grassland to cropland, potentially at cross purposes with other national policies intended to conserve grassland.

It’s well documented that the federal crop insurance program encourages farmers to expand planting into marginal areas. Taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to buy crop insurance for farmers who plant on risky land they’re plowing up for the first time. On top of that, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard’s mandate for corn ethanol production has pushed prices so high that growers have huge incentives to plant as much of that crop as they can.

Unless members of Congress want this entirely man-made environmental calamity to continue, they should roll back the corn ethanol portion of the renewable fuels mandate and reform lavish crop insurance subsidies. Members also need to work to restore the abandoned requirement that crop insurance recipients engage in common sense conservation measures in exchange for the agricultural safety net that no other business in America enjoys.

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