Responding to high crop prices and unlimited insurance, growers plowed under more than 23 million acres of grassland, shrub land and wetlands in order to plant commodity crops between 2008 and 2011, a new report by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Defenders of Wildlife shows.
The analysis, titled Plowed Under, uses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) satellite data to produce the most accurate estimate currently available of the rate of habitat conversion in the farm belt. It shows that more than 8.4 million acres were converted to plant corn, more than 5.6 million to raise soybeans and nearly 5.2 million to grow winter wheat. Most of the destroyed habitat was in states in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, but some of the highest rates of habitat conversion to grow crops were in drought-plagued portions of West Texas and Oklahoma.
“Policymakers are right to attend to the short term crisis created by the current drought, but what we’ve lost sight of in recent years is the long term crisis,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG. “A generation of conservation gains has been wiped out because costly, misguided government policies have caused tens of millions of acres of fragile land and wildlife habitat to be plowed under.”
Using a sophisticated mapping technique, Plowed Under found that 11 states had habitat losses of at least 1 million acres each over the three-year period, and a total of 147 counties lost at least 30,000 acres each. The losses were greatest in counties that received the largest amounts of crop insurance subsidies.
According to USDA, widespread destruction of grassland is threatening habitats for important wildlife species such as the swift fox, as well as putting at risk sage grouse, the lesser prairie chicken, whooping cranes and mountain plover.
The comprehensive analysis underscores the need for Congress to fully fund conservation programs designed to mitigate the devastating effects of severe weather and restore wildlife habitat, and to reject proposals to extend unlimited insurance subsidies without environmental protections. The full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee have each approved competing 2012 farm bill versions, and both would expand insurance subsidies, while cutting conservation programs by more than $6 billion over 10 years.
Extravagant crop insurance subsidies are not only a threat to wildlife and the environment, but they also take a heavy toll on American taxpayers. Today, USDA pays, on average, 62 percent of farmers’ premiums for crop insurance and lavishes $1.3 billion a year on the insurance companies and agents that sell the policies. At current rates, taxpayers can expect to send another $90 billion to farmers and insurance companies over the next decade.
“When Congress returns from recess and considers the 2012 farm bill, it should pass reasonable reforms to crop insurance subsidies, such as payment limits, and require every recipient to carry out basic conservation practices to protect the health of our land, water and soil, as the Senate version does,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs.