23 Million Acres of Sensitive Lands Lost to Crops


by Todd Neeley, DTN Staff Reporter

OMAHA (DTN) — Higher crop prices and crop insurance subsidies have contributed to a loss of more than 23 million acres of grasslands, shrub lands and wetlands between 2008 and 2011, according to a new study released Monday.

The majority of those acres were converted to corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Corn acres led the way with more than 8.4 million acres converted, according to the Environmental Working Group and Defenders of Wildlife study, “Plowed Under: How Crop Subsidies Contribute to Massive Habitat Losses.” The report said more than 5.6 million acres were converted to soybeans and nearly 5.2 million to winter wheat during that time span.

The report comes at a time when Congressional lawmakers have yet to pass a new farm bill. Environmental groups continue to stress that the farm bill should require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to meet minimum conservation standards. Farm and commodity groups argue more land should be opened up to unfettered production due to the high demand for grains to produce more food, feed and fiber.

Both the House and Senate farm bills would help spur more production by lowering the cap on Conservation Reserve Program enrollment by roughly 5 million acres.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, said the study should be alarming to both farmers and lawmakers.

“For those of us in the field, the results were shocking,” he said during a news conference Monday.

“Farmers are planting stream bank to stream bank. There are vast new areas of the Plains where this has never been done before. When I first came to Washington in the 1970s and farmers were protesting to get government out of agriculture, prices were plummeting. We spent the next 30 years trying to recover. It actually began to heal some of the damage. We’ve been holding our own for 25 years.

“These last few years have been a rude awakening. There are reports from the field of land being heavily used — land that was not plowed up for a generation.”

Cook said he believes farmers have an interest in stepping up conservation efforts. Those efforts, however, he said, are being undermined by government subsidies.

“Farmers are conservationists,” Cook said. “They line up at local conservation offices every year with a willingness to put in 50{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} of the costs to expand conservation efforts. That tells us there’s a strong conservation effort out there that’s being overwhelmed.

“Farmers are forced to choose between making a good living and not playing by the rules.”


The study found that 11 states during the three-year period had habitat losses of at least one million acres each and a total of 147 counties lost at least 30,000 acres each.

“Notably, the losses were greatest in counties that received the largest amounts of federal crop insurance subsidies,” the report said.

In addition, the study found that wildlife habitat was “destroyed across the country” with the largest losses found in the upper Midwest and Great Plains.

Some of the highest rates of converting habitat to crops were found in drought-plagued portions of west Texas and Oklahoma, according to the study.

In each of 10 west Texas counties, producers plowed up more than 50,000 acres of habitat for cotton, corn and wheat “for a total loss of more than 655,000 acres of wildlife habitat,” the study said.

In evaluating the effect of crop insurance subsidies and crop prices on the land, EWG researchers analyzed USDA’s annually updated cropland data layer and satellite data used to track and classify agricultural ground cover such as corn or soybeans.

The researchers counted raw pixel values on time-lapsed satellite images.

“Counting pixels in this fashion may generalize small crop features and thus over-estimate the acreage somewhat, but EWG believes it is the most accurate measure of groundcover change based on available data,” the report said.


Because crop insurance subsidies reduce the financial risk of planting on marginal lands, the report said “heavily subsidized crop insurance encourages farmers to plow up environmentally sensitive wetlands and grasslands. This results in environmental damage that would not otherwise occur.”

The report cited USDA data that shows the destruction of grasslands threatens the swift fox as well as other species including sage grouse, the lesser prairie chicken, whooping cranes and mountain plover.

In the Dakotas, the report said that more than 3.2 million acres of habitat were destroyed between 2008 and 2011.

“Experts also estimate that 1.4 million small wetlands in the eastern Dakotas, which are especially important for breeding ducks, are at high risk of being drained,” the study said. “If they were to dry up, the number of breeding ducks could decline by 37{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107}, according to the predictions.”


Replacing wetlands and grasslands with crops also contributes to water pollution, the study said, “by eliminating buffers that filter farm runoff and by increasing the use of fertilizers and chemicals.”

From 1965 to 2010, the use of nitrogen fertilizer on corn nearly doubled to 140 pounds per acre, according to USDA.

“Without wetlands or grasses to filter runoff, much more of those nutrients washes into streams, ultimately polluting waterways, destroying fisheries and increasing the cost of purifying drinking water,” the study said.

Crop insurance subsidies have been costly to U.S. taxpayers, the report said.

Ten years ago USDA paid an average of 30{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} of the cost of crop insurance premiums, according to the study. In 2000 Congress increased subsidies to farmers from less than $2 billion in 2001 to about $7.4 billion in 2011.

“Today, USDA pays, on average, 62{6b02cb02835b82b7f756ddf6717aaab7139b350de274ea97f5b53eb230607107} of farmers’ premium subsidies and lavishes $1.3 billion a year on insurance companies and agents who sell the policies,” the study said. At current rates taxpayers will spend another $90 billion in the next 10 years, according to the report.

Crop insurance subsidies are not subject to payment limits, means testing or conservation requirements, the study said.

“The new analysis underscores the need for Congress to require growers to implement basic environmental protections as a condition of receiving federal crop insurance subsidies under the federal farm bill and to reject cuts in voluntary conservation programs,” the study said.


The report touted the U.S. Senate version of the farm bill because it includes a conservation compliance provision to require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to take steps to protect wetlands, grasslands and soil health.

Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for EWG, said producers are open about what crop insurance subsidies have meant to their cropping decisions.

“Farmers have been telling us every day that when risk is reduced they can produce in low-quality land and still produce a profit,” he said.

That expanded crop production, Faber said, has led to the loss of buffer strips in some areas, which in turn is hurting water quality.

“Many farmers are no longer responding to the market because they are planting in areas because the government has taken risk out of planting,” he said.

There was a loss of wetlands and grasslands in the U.S. from 1850 to 1950, Faber said. That gradually slowed in the 1970s and in the 1980s and ’90s there was little overall loss.

“This last four crop years has been an unprecedented reversal of those gains,” he said.

“This study is the first real documentation of this. Before, we essentially held the line. Now we’re seeing a sudden drop and loss in our national heritage. It really surprised all of us. It’s an amazing turn.”

View the complete study here, http://bit.ly/….


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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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