US landscape changes: Conservation versus fuel and food

Trade-offs between U.S. commodity policies and conservation policy

Michigan State University Extension suggests that a recent study from the University of Wisconsin, “Cropland Expansion Outpaces Agriculture and Biofuel Policies in the U.S.,” raises questions about undesirable consequences from changes in our agricultural landscape.

Satellite-based studies suggest that the United States landscape could be experiencing the greatest transformation to cropland since the “fencerow-to-fencerow” farming era of the 1970s, and the Dustbowl of the 1930s. The study found that between 2008 and 2012, an estimated 7.34 million acres of land was converted to crop production.

Land sources of recently converted cropland varied within the study, but grasslands pulled ahead as the source of most new cropland at about 77 percent. Eleven percent of the land was converted from shrub land and forest, 8 percent from idle land, and 4 percent from wetlands or other land. The study doesn’t take into account conversions of 15 acres or smaller.

In 31 of the 47 states that saw conversion, corn was the first crop planted on newly converted land. Corn and soybeans were the most frequently planted crop on newly cultivated land in the agricultural belt of the Midwest.

The study also suggests that an estimated 42 percent of the expansion of cropland may have come from land leaving the Conservation Reserve Program,

According to the University of Wisconsin study, loss of filter strips, shelterbelts and windbreaks is also occurring due to cropland expansion but we need the permanent vegetation contained in those in order to protect our water quality and soil health.

We, as consumers of food, fuels, water and environmental amenities, need to be aware of the trade-offs inherent in our policies.  As is often said, “there is no free lunch”.  The choices we make today will have repercussions for our water resources, soil health and other natural resources. 

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