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Wildlife habitat becomes battleground in crop insurance fight

John Walter 07/30/2013 @ 10:43am

A new study of agriculture’s effects on land use indicates that millions of acres of grasslands, wetlands, and other non-cropland -- land critically important to wildlife -- have given way to the plow in recent years. The authors are using the findings to support a conservation-compliance provision in the farm bill.

From 2008 to 2012, 1.9 million acres of wetlands and nearby habitat were converted to cropland, and another 5.3 million acres of highly erodible lands were plowed up to plant row crops, according to a report released Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The EWG study was a follow-up to its “Plowed Under” report released in 2012, which showed that a total of 23.6 million acres of grasses, wetlands, and shrubland were converted to crops in recent years. The new report, “Going, going, gone,” focused on “hot spots” of conversion.

“We were interested in detecting areas where conversion was extensive,” Craig Cox, author of the report, told Agriculture.com. “So we only counted conversion if it occurred in contiguous blocks larger than 10 acres. That also substantially reduces the amount of conversion we are reporting.”

EWG argues that compliance provisions attached to federally subsidized crop insurance “could slow or reverse the environmental disaster underway as more and more fragile land goes under the plow.” 

The EWG study, which used “modern mapping and geospatial technologies,” mostly contradicts a report released last week by the Iowa Farm Bureau, which contended that 40 of Iowa’s 99 counties experienced a net gain of “grassy habitat” over the same period studied by EWG. IFB said in a media release that another 18 counties had “minimal net loss of grass habitat (fewer than 10,000 acres per county.)”

The Iowa Farm Bureau statement referenced a seven-state Farm Bureau study that looked at land use changes in the Midwest from 2007 to 2012. The study was conducted by the company, Decision Innovation Solutions.

In Iowa, according to IFB, there were some 1.1 million acres of grassy habitat converted to corn and 740,000 acres converted to soybeans. At the same time, however, there was a “two-way movement” of land use in the state, as farmers switched 414,000 corn acres into grass habitat and 187,000 acres of soybean ground into habitat areas, said Spencer Parkinson of Decision Innovation Solutions.

IFB’s statement indicated that in the past flawed interpretations of a USDA database have been used to draw conclusions on land use changes, claiming that crop changes sometimes have been mistaken as grassland conversion. 

“In 2007, the CDL [database] appears to have had problems differentiating between hay ground, alfalfa, and other crops that could show up as grassy habitat,” David Miller, director of research and commodity services for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said in the IFB statement.

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