Grasslands losses intensified closer to ethanol plants between 2008 and 2012, according to a new study funded in part by the National Wildlife Federation and disputed by one ethanol industry group.
The study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, http://bit.ly/…, examined land uses within 100 miles of ethanol plants across the Corn Belt, following the passage of the second Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007.
The study assessed landscape changes during the initial implementation of the second RFS. The authors found nearly 4.2 million acres of arable non-cropland was converted to crops within 100 miles of refinery locations, including 3.6 million acres of converted grassland.
"Aggregated across all ethanol refineries, the rate of grassland conversion to cropland increased linearly with proximity to a refinery location," the study said about what it found using satellite data.
Geoff Cooper, senior vice president of the Renewable Fuels Association, wrote an analysis challenging the study's conclusions, http://bit.ly/….
In the analysis, Cooper questions the NWF's use of what he says is unreliable satellite data.
By looking at USDA national cropland data, he said he found:
-Cropland in the counties with ethanol plants fell by 2.02 million acres, or 3.5%, between 1997 and 2012.
-Between 2007 and 2012 specifically (i.e., encompassing the period examined by the NWF study), total cropland in counties with ethanol plants fell by 454,000 acres, or 0.8%.
-On an individual county basis, 2012 cropland levels were below the levels recorded in 1997, 2002, or 2007 in the large majority (84%) of the counties with ethanol plants. The reduction in cropland for these 151 counties averaged 11.8% when compared to the highest level of cropland from 1997, 2002, or 2007.
-For the small minority (16%) of counties with ethanol plants where 2012 cropland was higher than the amount of cropland recorded in 1997, 2002, or 2007, the increase in cropland was minor (3.1% on average) and coincided with reductions in Conservation Reserve Program land and pastureland.
-Most of the counties with ethanol plants where 2012 cropland exceeded 1997, 2002, or 2007 levels are located in the heart of the Corn Belt, not the western fringe where undisturbed grassland is more common.
"This provides more support for the argument that expanded cropland in these counties replaced land with previous agricultural history (such as CRP or pasture), not prairie or other native lands," Cooper concluded.
So I asked Cooper, isn't it possible overall cropland use in counties with ethanol plants dropped while grasslands losses intensified closer to ethanol plants?
"I suppose it could be possible for corn to replace grassland, but for overall cropland to shrink simultaneously, that seems like a highly unlikely or unusual scenario to me," he said in an email.
"Here's why: a reduction in total planted cropland in an area near an ethanol plant suggests to me that less agricultural land is needed to meet the demands of the local market. This means some land that was previously used as cropland is taken out of production. This means there is 'surplus cropland' available in the area.
"Within that pool of total cropland, however, there may be increased demand for corn in the local market. So, farmers in the area could meet that increased demand for corn by either plowing under native grassland and planting corn, or by returning some of the surplus cropland to corn production. It would be far more economical to do the latter. Why would a farmer expend the resources to convert grassland prairie to cropland if there is idle cropland, underutilized pasture, or a low-margin hay field across the road?"
Cooper said his analysis assumes that if cropland in a county is shrinking and still can accommodate increased corn demand, "then there is no logical reason for a farmer in that county to break out 'new' cropland by converting prairie grassland."
He went on to say imagine you are in the T-shirt business and you have a factory running at full capacity. Demand for T-shirts increases in your area and you can no longer meet that demand entirely with your own factory.
So across the road is an idle factory that used to produce bed sheets, and with some investment it can be converted into a T-shirt manufacturer.
"Would it make more sense to buy the idle factory and convert it, or build an entirely new T-shirt factory?," he said.
"In almost every case, it's going to make more sense to repurpose the existing resource. The same is true for land. Why cut down trees or plow under prairie sod if there is idle or underutilized cropland available?"
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com
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