Disappearing Grasslands are No Joke

We wish this opinion piece in Ethanol Producer magazine was actually written for April Fool’s Day.

Mike Bryan, CEO of BBI Biofuels, criticizes a recent study by researchers at South Dakota State University, which found that more than 1.3 million acres of grassland were converted to corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, the highest rate of grassland conversion in the U.S. Corn Belt since the 1930s. In their study, Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly used a geographic information system to analyze USDA data based on satellite imagery, and found that many types of grasslands are being plowed up and converted to cropland — mostly to plant more corn.

Bryan writes about the loss of grasslands as if they are no more important than the grass on his lawn. But grassland loss is no joke for grassland wildlife. In addition to reducing habitat, converting grasslands to cropland increases soil erosion and surface runoff. Once prairie is plowed, restoration efforts can only regain a fraction of the land’s original ecological function. Restoring native prairie is difficult and expensive, and research shows that the habitat quality can never be fully restored.

“Grasslands to cashlands?” Tell that to this black-footed ferret. Corn fields don’t make good wildlife habitat. Photo: J. Michael Lockhart, US Fish & Wildlife Service, via flickr
More than 97 % of native grasslands in the U.S. have been lost, primarily because of conversion to cropland, including land for biofuel production. In most states that once had tall-grass prairie, including Illinois and Iowa, less than 1% of pre-settlement grasslands and prairies remain today.

What’s behind this plow-up? High corn prices, driven in part because about 40% of the country’s corn crop is being used to produce about 13-14 billion gallons of ethanol every year. Experts estimate that 2030% of the high price of corn is due to the ethanol market.

The plowup and increased corn plantings also crowd out a future with better biofuels. As Wright and Wimberly put it, “the window of opportunity for realizing the benefits of a biofuel industry based on perennial bioenergy crops, rather than corn ethanol and soy biodiesel, may be closing in the Western Corn Belt.” The study suggests we need to be moving to greater production of cellulosic ethanol that utilizes native mixed-grass species as a feedstock, and wouldn’t require converting grasslands to plowed rows of corn or soy.

NWF supports biomass sources that minimize impacts to habitats and biodiversity. Corn ethanol, especially when its cultivation crowds out wildlife and leads to the plowing up of remaining prairies, has increasingly serious impacts that shouldn’t be taken lightly.