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Wildlife habitat becomes battleground in crop insurance fight

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.

According to IFB, in counties where significant conversion of grassy habitat has occurred, the source has been primarily whole-farm CRP enrollments, where farmers are using no-till and other conservation practices to bring the land back into production. 

IFB says their study “found no conclusive evidence that crop insurance subsidies are a driving factor in conversion from habitat in Iowa.”  

EWG’s report did find “a few cases in which highly erodible land that had been planted with crops was converted back to grass or other vegetation.” But in Iowa, the ratio of conversion is 7:1, with grass conversion on the high side, Cox said.

“That pattern is consistent in the data,” Cox said in an e-mail. “In counties where conversion of large blocks of HEL is extensive, very little HEL goes from cropland to some other land cover. The larger ‘back and forth’ really occurs in counties that are at the margin of the real hot spots for conversion.”

Iowa wildlife habitat experts interviewed were critical of the Farm Bureau report, saying that other data support the contention that major losses of habitat have occurred in recent years. 

“It [the IFB report] does not square with what I think most of the landscape level analyses would show,” said Dr. William Clark, an Iowa State University wildlife and ecology expert. Scientific, peer-reviewed studies are needed to tackle the complex challenge of analyzing land use changes, he told Agriculture.com.

“There is no guarantee about the quality of the [Farm Bureau’s] data analysis,” he said.

Todd Bogenschutz, a researcher for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, tracks Iowa land-use change using USDA data. He told Agriculture.com, “Perhaps there are some counties with increasing trends, but the overall trend is down. The combined loss of grassy type habitats (oats, wheat, hay, and CRP) from 2007 to 2012 is a net loss of 720,000 acres.” 

At the ground-truth level, farmers themselves report seeing both kinds of land-use conversion -- grassy habitat to crops and vice versa. 

An Iowa farmer commented on the IFB report in an Agriculture.com forum, Crop Talk, “I seeded a little 2-acre corner to clover for wildlife this spring. Other than this, mostly what I saw this spring is row crops fence row to fence row and some CRP coming out to row crops.”

From another Iowa farmer: “I haven't seen cropland going to wildlife habitat around here, unless it's a small CRP wetlands sign-up. Contractors have really been busy burying old building sites to go into crops. Those 5-acre sites had been a wildlife haven.” 

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