Getting off oil, protecting our land

Getting off oil, protecting our land

Posted 21 February 2013 in


A recent study that purports to show the conversion of grassland to corn and soybean crops is not only off the mark, but it also distracts from the real threat facing our nation’s land.

The study, published in the proceedings of the National Academies of Science, relies on hard-to-interpret satellite imagery to come up with estimates, which are, by the authors’ own admission imprecise.

The Renewable Fuels Association takes the study to task in this blog post:

A recently published study in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science suggests that native grasslands in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota have been converted to cropland to facilitate increased corn and soybean plantings between 2006 and 2011. The study’s findings stand in stark contrast to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acreage data, which show increased corn and soybean acres in the region have occurred via crop switching, not cropland expansion. Further, the extremely high rate of error associated with the satellite imagery used by the authors renders the study’s conclusions highly questionable and irrelevant to the biofuels policy debate.

And there are some key facts to consider:

Total planted cropland in the five states in 2011 was the lowest since 1995. Total planted acres in 2011 for the five-state area were 3.6% below the 10-year average (2001-2010).
While North Dakota planted 540,000 more acres to corn in 2011 than in 2006, total acres planted to all crops in the state actually fell 3.25 million acres (15%) between 2006 and 2011. Total planted crop acres in 2011 were also lower in Minnesota. This strongly suggests the expansion in corn area took place on land previously planted to other crops.
Data from USDA show that the increase in corn and soybean acres in the five-state region was primarily achieved via crop switching rather than cropland expansion. That is, farmers increased corn/soybean plantings on land previously planted to hay, wheat, and other crops. Indeed, USDA shows total crop acres in the five-state region actually declined 2.1% from 2006 to 2011.

While this study leaves us with more questions than answers, here is what we do know is happening on America’s prairies: the relentless hunt for fossil fuels is having a devastating effect on land, air and water. Developing shale oil in the Dakotas for example is poisoning the soil and water, while “flaring” – or burning excess natural gas, a byproduct of extracting oil from rock formations – is spewing carbon dioxide into the air.

Meanwhile, American farmers are working hard to make the most out of their farms, often producing multiple, beneficial products out of each acre, including renewable fuel and animal feed. Production has become increasingly more efficient, with higher yields resulting in more crops without significantly expanding land use.

At the same time, advanced biofuels present the opportunity to use marginal lands for perennial energy crops – such as switchgrass – in ways that are compatible with land conservation. A study last month from researchers at Michigan State and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that using marginal lands to produce biofuel from plants like grasses could yield as much as 215 gallons per acre along with “substantial greenhouse gas mitigation.”

If we are serious about protecting our natural resources, we need to address our addiction to oil and support clean alternatives like renewable fuel.

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Getting off oil, protecting our land

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