Awakening to the spirit and beauty of the northern Great Plains
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."]