Biofuels have often been sold as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but that isn’t really/always the truth. In addition to the greenhouse gas emissions that they release when they are burned, which are less than with fossil fuels, they contribute significantly to global greenhouse emissions through the same mechanisms that all other agriculture does.
As Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen has argued, emissions of nitrous oxide due to nitrate fertilizers, and other potent greenhouse gases associated with agriculture, are likely very seriously underestimated. And in addition to their effect on the climate, the production of biofuels has led to significant damage to many natural environments, and a drop in agricultural food production.
By converting farmland to the production of biofuels, the price of corn and other food staples is forced to rise as total agricultural area drops. “Standards passed in the United States and Europe requiring a certain level of biofuel use have encouraged producers to dedicate more corn to ethanol production and less to food supplies.”
The production of biofuels has also led to increasing rates of deforestation in the developing world. Which further intensifies global food insecurity, desertification, and the spread of infectious disease, among the other global effects of climate change.
And now, a new study from South Dakota State University has discovered another significant downside to the large-scale production of biofuel, the rapid destruction “of grasslands in America’s Western Corn Belt (WCB) region — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.”
The study’s authors state that the pace at which grasslands were converted to corn and soy production between the years 2006 and 2011 exceeded the rate of deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. About 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of tall-grass prairie were lost in Iowa alone.
In sum, we found a net decline in grass-dominated land cover in the WCB totaling nearly 530,000 hectares (approx. 1.3 million acres). This change was concentrated in two states, South Dakota and Iowa, with the majority of grassland conversion occurring in the WCB’s three western states relative to the core corn/soy growing areas in Iowa and Minnesota.
The primary driving factors of this rapid conversion seem to be the price boost for growing biofuels (subsidies), the subsidized crop insurance, and a lack of incentives for farmers to preserve the grasslands.
This conversion of natural grasslands to agricultural farmland for the purpose of reducing carbon emissions brings with it some funny ironies. The “grasslands are themselves able to store carbon from the atmosphere better than cropland. So expanding biofuel crop production into grasslands specifically further dilutes biofuels’ already dubious benefits.”
And something that is very important to note is that the destruction of these natural soil anchors could have potentially devastating consequences for the nation’s food supply, as occurred during the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s. The many dust storms seen in recent years, while certainly not unprecedented, do appear to be increasing in quantity and intensity. And they seem to be very clearly associated with the increasing levels of drought, and increased loss of the natural vegetation that works to keep the soil anchored and moist.
The study authors note that the rate at which grassland is being converted to farmland hasn’t been this high since the 1920s and 1930s.