Recently, my eye caught an Associated Press article entitled “Prairies Vanish In The US Push For Green Energy“ . The sub-title under the lead photo of a farmer inspecting an ear of corn stated that:
“Robert Malsam nearly went broke in the 1980s when corn was cheap. So now that prices are high and he can finally make a profit, he’s not about to apologize for ripping up prairie land to plant corn.“
As I read this quote, my mind’s red flags went up and alarm bells sounded. This statement was a lot like the same mentality I had been experiencing when I had researched my blogs on cattle grazing and the killing of wolves. But this time there was nothing subtle about it. Mr. Malsam was going to “rip up” prairie land to plant more corn. He is doing what a lot of other farmers are doing. He is planting corn and soybeans to be sold for the production of ethanol alcohol that would be added to petroleum fuels. In doing so, this would ostensibly provide a much more sustainable form of energy for our world’s autos, trucks, and industrial machinery. In part, the ethanol alcohol is an alternative energy source.
This sounds really great. But, I’ve become a skeptic when I read claims that involve the agriculture industry. I wanted to know more facts and issues that underlie the claims. The deeper I got into the subject, the more information I found on the sustainable utilization of agricultural land. It has become clear to be that the real discussion should be about land use because land is becoming a limited resource in a world of exponential population growth of the human race. Indeed, we are the invasive species utilizing and quickly consuming land. Relationships between people and their environment are largely defined by land use.
There are many “faces” to the subject of land use. There is much controversy because there are diverse demands for land. In this blog, I’m going to examine the trade-offs between simply leaving the land alone, the production of biofuels, and the production of food for a rapidly increasing human population. A consistent metric to describe each of these land use options is energy utilization. In all three cases, energy is being transferred and transformed. Undisturbed land transforms the sun’s energy into plants which become producers of oxygen and storehouses for carbon. Biofuels end up providing energy to run our vehicles and machinery. And food is the stored energy that the bodies of all creatures, including ourselves, use for the process of life. Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each of the land uses that create and sustain these energy sources.
Land is a bank to store energy and carbon.
Although oceans store most of the earth’s carbon, soils contain approximately 75% of the carbon pool on land – three times more than the amount stored in living plants and animals. Soils therefore play a major role in maintaining a balanced global carbon cycle. Since most scientists believe that there is a direct relationship between increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising global temperatures, interest in soil carbon sequestration is attracting the attention of researchers, policy makers, farmers, and the general public.
The charter of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is “to help control soil erosion, stabilize land prices, and control excessive agricultural production”. CRP guidelines encourage farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover such as native grasses or trees. Regionally, specific land-management practices are used on CRP lands to reduce soil erosion and sedimentation in streams and lakes, improve water quality, establish wildlife habitat and enhance forest and wetland resources close to farms. These practices enhance biodiversity by subsidizing habitat creation in areas that would otherwise be planted to row crops. While doing all of this, the land is held in reserve as a soil bank
According to the USDA, participants in the program receive subsidies for not planting crops because some agricultural practices proposed as methods for sequestering carbon may have hidden costs:
• Increased use of nitrogen fertilizer may temporarily increase soil organic matter because nitrogen is often limited in agro-ecosystems. The carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel combustion during the production, transport and application of nitrogen fertilizer, however, can reduce the net amount of the sequestered carbon. Nitrogen from fertilization can also run off from agricultural lands into nearby waterways where it may have serious ecological consequences by stimulating excessive algal growth.
• Growing plants on semiarid lands has been suggested as one way to increase carbon storage in soils. The fossil fuel costs of supplying irrigation for these lands, however, may exceed any net gain in carbon sequestration. Additionally, in many semi-arid regions surface and groundwater contain high concentrations of dissolved calcium and bicarbonate ions. As these are deposited in the soil they release unwanted carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
According to the Corn and Soybean Digest:
“The USDA has cited CRP as the largest and most important conservation program in recent decades in this country. CRP continues to make major contributions to national efforts to improve water and air quality, prevent soil erosion, protect environmentally sensitive land, and enhance wildlife populations. Some of the benefits of CRP over the past two and a half decades cited by USDA include:”
- 450 million tons of soil erosion reduced annually
- Each year, CRP keeps more than 600 million pounds of nitrogen and more than 100 million pounds of phosphorus from flowing into rivers, streams and lakes in the U.S.
- 2 million acres of wetlands and buffers restored
- 2 million acres of stream bank protected along rivers and streams
- Enhanced populations of ducks, pheasants, quail and other wildlife species
- CRP provides over $1.7 billion/year to private landowners, which are dollars that help support local businesses and the local economy
- CRP is the largest private lands carbon sequestration program in the U.S. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road.
The bottom-line is that the CRP program has over 25 years of success of protecting sensitive environmental lands, reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and enhancing wildlife. The CRP program is very popular with farmers, the general public, and with policy makers, and CRP will likely continue to be a major USDA conservation and land bank program. However, economic pressures, the need for more renewable energy, and the worldwide need for more food may lead to some changes in the future for the CRP program.
Land use for biofuels
One major competitor to the CRP and the sustainable utilization of land is the growing production of biofuels. The income to farmers for soybeans and corn that will be processed into biofuel has risen sharply so as to encourage farmers to “rip up prairie land”. The question is whether the short term economic benefit to farmers is ecologically sound. Does this kind of land use help us all in the long run?
As nice it is to hear about sustainable energy sources, a big question about biofuels is whether producing them actually requires more energy than they can generate. After factoring in the energy needed to grow crops and then convert them into biofuels, Cornell University researcher David Pimental concludes that the numbers just don’t add up. His 2005 study found that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more energy than the end product itself is capable of generating. He found similarly troubling numbers in making biodiesel from soybeans. “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” Pimentel says.
Another major hurdle for widespread adoption of biofuels is the challenge of growing enough crops to meet demand. The skeptics are saying that the production of biofuels may ultimately require converting just about all of the world’s remaining forests and open spaces over to agricultural land.
“Replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of today’s soy crops to biodiesel production,” says Matthew Brown, an energy consultant and former energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In 2010, fuel became the number one use for corn in America. What the green-energy program has made profitable, however, is far from green. A policy intended to reduce global warming is encouraging a farming practice that actually could worsen it. That’s because plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats. It appeared so damaging that scientists warned that America’s corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land.
According to an Associated Press analysis of satellite data, more than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol. Plots of land that were once wild grass or pasture land seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields. That’s in addition to the 5 million acres of farmland that had been aside for conservation under the CRP program noted above. In South Dakota, more than 370,000 acres of grassland have been uprooted and farmed from since 2006. Nebraska has lost at least 830,000 acres of grassland. “It’s great to see farmers making money. It hasn’t always been that way,” said Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group. He advocates for clean energy but opposes the ethanol mandate. “If we’re going to push the land this hard, we really need to intensify conservation in lockstep with production, and that’s just not happening,” he said.
A recent Science Magazine article emphasizes the need for more intense land conservation by stating that:
“Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland. By using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land-use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products. “
The alternative to using land for the production of biofuels is now under much study. By recycling our waste products into new energy sources, we solve the land use issues while getting rid of the huge amount of waste that humanity produces.
Land is used to feed earth’s creatures
We’ve looked at two pressures that we humans are placing on our limited supply of land. The first is the need to maintain an adequate carbon bank to ensure the very survival of an exponentially growing human population. The second pressure is the need to produce more ecologically acceptable energy in order to support human lifestyles.
The third pressure is the need to provide energy to our human bodies in the form of food. Let’s face it, there will be a day when the size of our food supply will reach its limit simply because there is a limited supply of land. Unless we find a way to control the size of the human population on the earth, that day looms in the future. For now, at least, we can look at ways to utilize land to produce food crops and their energy calories more efficiently
New research at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota shows reallocating croplands away from fuels and animal feed could boost food available for people by 70 percent without clearing more land. The world’s croplands could feed 4 billion more people than they do now just by shifting from producing animal feed and biofuels to producing exclusively food for human consumption.
Demand for crops is expected to double by 2050 as population grows and increasing affluence boosts meat consumption. Meat takes a particularly big toll on food availability because it takes up to 30 crop calories to produce a single calorie of meat.
To get at that question, the researchers used U.S. Department of Agriculture data to map the extent and productivity of 41 major crops between 1997 and 2003. Among the team’s findings:
- Only 12 percent of crop calories used for animal feed end up as calories consumed by humans.
- Only 55 percent of crop calories worldwide directly nourish people.
- Growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could boost available food calories up to 70 percent
- U.S. agriculture alone could feed an additional 1 billion people by shifting crop calories to direct human consumption.
Noting the major cultural and economic dimensions involved, the researchers acknowledged that while a complete shift from animal to plant-based diets may not be feasible, even a partial shift would benefit food availability. Quantifying the impact of various strategies, they found that a shift from crop-intensive beef to pork and chicken could feed an additional 357 million people, and a shift to non-meat diets that include eggs and milk could feed an additional 815 million people.
Land banks, the production of biofuels, and growing more food are simply coping mechanisms that mask the ultimate fate of humanity unless we get our population size under control. Were a reasonable human population size exist, there would be no arguments about land banking, biofuels, or feeding the masses.
The hard reality that we must reduce our consumption, not just replace it with something else. Conservation is probably the largest single “alternative fuel” available to us. And, ultimately, “conservation” means finding a way to limit the size of the human population of our planet.
What do you think?
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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.