Unclear Thinking and Bad Incentives Harmful to Plants, Animals, Soil

I’m face-deep in finishing graduate school, so posting has been pretty infrequent since the New Year.  But I have to comment on this from the Washington Post:

America’s prairies are shrinking. Spurred on by the rush for biofuels, farmers are digging up grasslands in the northern Plains to plant crops at the quickest pace since the 1930s. […]

A new studyby Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of South Dakota State University finds that U.S. farmers converted more than 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean fields between 2006 and 2011, driven by high crop prices and biofuel mandates[.] In states like Iowa and South Dakota, some 5 percent of pasture is turning into cropland each year.

I’m not going to mince words: this is bad.  Wendell Berry’s written about similar trends happening in the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere around the world as well.

Kansas Prairies

It’s understandable why biofuels are attractive given resource scarcity and climate change, but there’s some very unclear thinking here that we need to unpack.  The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) ratio of most annual-crop biofuels is terrible: usually  below 2:1 and sometimes even below 1:1.  Corn and soy just aren’t thermodynamically efficient fuels.

Climate-wise, replacing perennial pasture or grasslands with annual tillage crops releases  a huge amount of carbon, from loss of perennial root systems and reduction in soil organic matter.  And, this type of land conversion means major loss of habitat, biodiversity, soil nutrient & water retention, and grassland communities with their own intrinsic value and importance.  Moreover, these outcomes are directly incentivized by ethanol and crop insurance subsidies (which the Post article mentions) and the massive unpriced externalities of industrial farming (which it doesn’t).  It’s a mess.

Bottom line, ideas and incentives matter a lot and can be very harmful.  Which is why we need both better ideas (i.e., perennial polycultures; rotational grazing; restoration agriculture; resilience, justice, and regeneration instead of growth; etc.) and financial, political, and social incentives that make it easy for those ideas to be widely adopted.

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2 Responses to Unclear Thinking and Bad Incentives Harmful to Plants, Animals, Soil

  1. TJ Grist says:

    Connor – Couldn’t agree more. Rotational grazing is a marvelous, systematic way of moving energy and material through a system, and I like the idea of perennial polycultures. When I’m in Wisconsin in the growing season, it’s particularly tiresome to see rows and rows of corn/soy/corn/soy/corn/soy. I also think regeneration in place of growth is super important, in this realm as well as the economic realm in general.

  2. Connor, I think its time for a new blog post. Maybe on the struggles and rewards of grad school… 🙂

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