Wednesday, January 20, 2010

American grasslands lost to corn ethanol

Big Bluestem grass from the Tallgrass Prairie

The Americans did something right by the prairie when they instituted the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) many years ago. Its roots go back to the 1950s but the program didn’t really get fully underway until the 1980s when it became clear that industrialized agriculture was doing some bad things for the land, waterways, and wildlife. Under the program, farmers are given annual payments to convert cultivated land back to natural cover of some kind. Here is a link to the US Department of Agriculture web page, explaining the CRP and how it “reduces soil erosion, protects the Nation's ability to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland resources.“

The CRP is not perfect (some research has shown that landowners have abused the program and a small number have actually ploughed native prairie so they could get more land to qualify), but it has helped out some species of grassland birds and serves as a model that could be adapted and improved upon on both sides of the 49th parallel. As of March, 2008, there were still 34.5 million acres of grass, trees and wetlands enrolled in CRP, including millions of acres of reseeded grassland on the Great Plains. Waterfowl and upland birds in particular have benefitted from CRP so there have been significant economic benefits for local businesses in the prairie pothole region where hunters like to spend time and money in the fall.

map showing the extnent of CRP lands in the states

The CRP has been under threat now for at least three years, as the powerful corn and soy lobby has urged government policy in directions that give farmers the incentive to convert their CRP land back to crop. Jumping on the corn-based ethanol bandwagon, with its shell-game approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (read this study from University of California, Berkeley), corn growers’ organizations have been pushing for the government to give farmers “flexibility to plant corn without penalty on cropland idled through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) so there will be enough grain for ethanol producers and livestock feeders.” That wording (love that term, “idling) comes from an article published in Corn and Soybean Digest” back in 2007.

But who is really behind this movement? The list of lobbying organizations who want to plough up CRP land includes the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Chicken Council, the National Turkey Federation, the National Oilseed Processors Association and the North American Millers Association.
Again, it comes down to meat industries (not ranchers) who want to mass produce cheap and unhealthy meat and other animal products by feeding animals pharmaceutical-laced corn and soy in intensive livestock operations—instead of letting animals mature on grass the way they did a generation or two ago.

Just last week came the first proof that government incentives are already driving the cultivation of CRP land and in turn spurring declines in some grassland birds. Here is a quote from the top of a press release relating to the study:

“Ann Arbor, MI (Vocus) Jan. 13, 2010 -- A University of Michigan study released today shows how government incentives for corn ethanol are driving farmers to shift land into corn production, resulting in significant decreases in grassland bird populations throughout the fragile Prairie Pothole Region. The study, conducted for the National Wildlife Federation by a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, analyzes the current and potential impacts of increased corn ethanol production on wildlife and habitat in the Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.”
Here is a posting from the “Environmental Working Group” on this topic with some further analysis.

As Michael Pollan’s books and the documentary film Food Inc. show so clearly, Big Corn and the meat industries that depend on corn are making us unhealthy from land to mouth.

[Note: If you have gotten this far in the post, please take a moment to read the poignant and powerful comment left by "CL," an anonymous member of the clergy who once lived in Kansas, where he saw the good that CRP offered in a place where wheat not corn was ruining the land in a culture spiralling toward despair and violence. The comment includes this chilling line: "I saw more suffering in four years there than in twenty years in other places combined…the land being just one more casualty."]


  1. For four years I worked in the middle of your map on the Colorado – Kansas border. Arid. High plains. CRP in plenty.

    As a kid I was raised traversing the western plains regularly. Full of sage, and wonder, I enjoyed gazing to the horizons from the back of a Buick VistaCruiser in the 1960’s. By 1990 it was all plowed when I moved there with my own family to work. Years and years of dryland wheat farming for neighbours yielded measly outcomes…all propped up by US payments to farmers whose crops did not work out. CRP stopped land from blowing away – sometimes the dust storms were so bad in west Kansas that you could not see thirty feet down the road (KAN-za being native American meaning, strong south wind). We left there for one reason, namely, egos were out of control and we did not want our children raised in that environment. Litigation over water rights, depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, indiscriminate and permanent nitrate poisoning of ground water by feedlots a mile square, puppy mills that made you weep when you drove by, and sixteen times the national average when it came to child suicides (these are all facts). It didn’t carry the moniker of Bloody Kansas during the War-Between-The- States for nothing. Incentives have little to do with the determining the efficacy of farm policy there…avarice does. And after four years of intense work as a clergy there we threw up our hands and walked away. In fact I saw more suffering in four years there than in twenty years in other places combined…the land being just one more casualty. This is not an encouraging post, but it is the truth. External intervention is the only thing that will change policy there. But who can I trust to do that with equitability? And the week we left there for good I visited a parishioner who proudly showed me a pair of fully automatic M-16’s that he had just purchased. What are those for?, I asked. Why for the fight that’s commin’, he replied. And he was a farmer…and the former sheriff of the county. R.I.P. C.R.P., you will be missed.

  2. Thanks CL for your thoughts on this. In some ways, Saskatchewan is Kansas North, a culture that is "wheating the land to death," though things have not yet advanced to the state you describe. I'd be interested to hear what you mean by "external intervention."

    Trevor Herriot

  3. Thanks so much for this post Trevor. We watched 'Food Inc.' just last distressing, yet on some level hopeful. I had posted some thoughts, and then on checking your blog was delighted to read your comprehensive post. Thanks for fighting the good fight.

    (Always appreciate CL's comments as well.)

  4. Thanks Stephen. I'm glad you found it worth a read.



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