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Cook Organic not the Planet Campaign

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

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Farm Issues page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

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. The idea came from a paper 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).

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 (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."

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