(If you want to better understand the human impact, I recommend Timothy Egan’s excellent book The Worst Hard Time or Ken Burns’ documentary mini-series The Dust Bowl). A bit of history to close: the infamous, expensive, and painfully detrimental Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted from a confluence of climate and economic drivers. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason. “Blue” water is what’s critical NOT green water. But it’s not so great for supporting other species—at least compared to native grasslands. Overgrazing can reduce ground cover, enabling erosion and compaction of the land by wind and rain.. Study Shows False Memories Afflict Us All. This has resulted in a widespread loss of wildlife habitat. Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world. Andrea Basche is a Kendall Science Fellow in the UCS Food & Environment program. The obvious answer is yes, but let me use a few maps and graphs to illustrate what is really happening. Maps 5, 6, 7. Tags: food policy, grasslands, maladaptation, perennials, Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change, sustainable agriculture. We now know clearly how to avoid such a scenario by focusing on protecting sensitive and important regions like grasslands. As you point out in your article, when crops other than grasses are grown, blue water is often required. While drought shows how temperate grasslands can be affected by climate, the biome's conversion to farmland shows the role humans play in influencing it. They are also threatened. It is further troubling because of what the past climate record and future predictions tell us. If a farmer wants to increase the amount of grain they produce, he really only has a couple of options. New Offshore Wind Turbine Can Power a Home for a Day in Just 7 Seconds. Both of those issues almost defeat the purpose of the provision. The conversion of natural ecosystems to pasture land doesn’t damage the land initially as much as crop production, but this change in usage can lead to high rates of erosion and loss of topsoil and nutrients. They also calculated that the majority of newly cultivated cropland was from—you guessed it—grasslands. You might be thinking: Shouldn’t we be protecting grasslands if they provide so many climate benefits? Grassland conversion in Iowa was concentrated on less suitable land, likely reflecting a relative lack of higher quality land available for growing more corn and soybeans. The term grassland agriculture is a familiar one in a number of European countries but perhaps not as familiar in the United States. As outlined in the Toward Climate Resilience report, such policies should incorporate a systems approach and reflect a long-term vision, one that protects climate buffering landscapes. Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming Add in the fact that funding has been declining for the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to protect wildlife by keeping land uncultivated. The formation of natural grasslands occurred over millions of years as plants and animals grew, died and decomposed into a soil that was largely undisturbed. The soil gave nourishment and a safe place for seeds to develop. If that doubling is achieved by significantly expanding the amount of the planet under the plow, well, there really won’t be much wilderness left to save. (MORE: Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable). Offset in some circumstances so much so that grassland ecosystems WITH ruminants are GHG sinks NOT emitters. It was meant to limit crop insurance subsidies available to producers who planted crops on previously uncultivated land (or native sod) in specific Upper Midwest and Plains states, where wetlands and grasslands are abundant (the region highlighted in red in Map 2). Ruminants, especially cattle (particularly beef cattle), have gotten a bad rap for their effects on climate, water, land and health. Policies designed to protect sensitive ecosystems such as grasslands ought to be prioritized in a responsible, comprehensive manner. Grasslands might seem self-explanatory, but are much more exciting than the straightforward name implies. During 1997-2007, grassland-cropland conversion varied by grassland type and region. Fires remove species competing with grasses for resources and burn dead grass, converting it to fertilizer. The American Forage & Grassland Council defines grassland agriculture simply as:"...the proper use of grass in agriculture" (American Forage & GrasslandCouncil, 1959. Farmers are capitalists, just as much as their cousins in the big city.  A grassland environment in the Nebraska Sand Hills. por cantidad de tormentas, intensificación rápida, Rapid Intensification and Number of Storms Make 2020 a Record Hurricane Season, Trump’s Rushed Oil Leasing in the Arctic: A Dumpster Fire of Desperation, Greed, and Crippling Loyalty Tests, Want More Science-Based Policies? Most respondents to a survey of farmers in North Dakota and South Dakota in 2015 reported that grassland acreage within a five-mile radius of their farms decreased while corn and soybean acreage increased. Across the lower 48 states, the areas where grasslands are being lost are the same ones where flood frequency has increased the most, and soil moisture is predicted to decline the most. Source: National Climate Assessment, Map 9. Poor agricultural practicescan ruin soil and strip grasslands of life. It’s worth mentioning a few promising climate change adaptation policies on the horizon. Worldwide, they contain over 50 per cent of the world’s organic carbon. With increasing climate impacts, time is of the essence. 1, 10 January 2011 29 Ask a Scientist: What Must the Biden Administration Do to Protect Federal Science? What’s the Role of Hydrogen in the Clean Energy Transition? National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have noted, “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry”, Healthy Soils and Rangelands Solution Act, Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237823417_Grazing_affects_methanotroph_activity_and_diversity_in_an_alpine_meadow_soil, Masks: What the Science Says, and What Lies Ahead. 1999). It is also alarming because the crops that are replacing grasslands require more water. Avoided grassland conversion As populations grow and the demand for food increases, grasslands and shrub lands around the world continue to be cleared for agriculture. But as the study goes onto state, turning grassland to cropland can have negative consequences for the larger environment: For instance, it’s bad … By permanently conserving grassland that otherwise would have been converted into alternative use, substantial emissions of carbon may be avoided. The grassland was converted to cropland, as farmers expanded their territory in an effort to cash in—and I mean that in a totally non-pejorative sense—on the boom in crop prices. Start by Protecting the Scientists, 7 Common Excuses People Use to Avoid Wearing Masks, and Why Science Says They’re Wrong. And because of many confounding factors—including a bubble in commodity prices due to the ethanol boom—grasslands protected by USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program have transitioned out of the program. Grassland regions of North America. In recent decades, residential and commercial development has decimated America’s agricultural lands. Grassland over use and land conversion into grasslands are driven by the demand for forage production since Yet many view ethanol production as a much-needed shot in the arm for workers outside coastal urban centers. UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. Earlier this year, USDA released its “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry” framework, which includes grasslands protection principles such as conservation of sensitive lands and grazing lands. This is ever more important given the climate change trends already surrounding us and affecting our food and agriculture system. What Lessons Should We Learn from the PFAS Crisis? However when soil is tilled, left exposed (due to heat) or treated with nitrogen inputs, the soil microbes that oxidize atmospheric methane (methanotrophs) are destroyed so these grasslands no longer function in this methane oxidizing capacity. Since the development of the steel plow much of these grasslands have been converted to agricultural lands because of their rich so Researchers from South Dakota State University crunched the numbers and found that 1.3 million acres of grassland in disappeared between 2006 and 2011 in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. Grassland soil is rich, and almost anything can be grown there. Be the positive change that nature desires and convert your lawn to a wildflower meadow, starting today! But that’s grist for another post.). The conversion of grassland into production cropland or other land development can rapidly decrease soil carbon stocks as a result of soil disturbance and removal of permanent vegetation. Whole Food Blues: Why Organic Agriculture May Not Be So Sustainable, The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production, Critters So Ugly They Have to Mate With Themselves, Go to Sleep! Right? Farming already covers nearly 40% of the planet’s land area. Desert Dreams: Can the Middle Eastern Country of Qatar Learn to Feed Itself? When grasslands are tilled for farming half of the carbon stored in the soil is list in the atmosphere.grasslands do the opposite they pull carbon from the atmosphere.avoiding the conversion would prevent 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.that equates to the emissions from 7.4 million passenger vehicles a year. That is what’s the most effective use of the land where “green” water or rain falls. In these two studies from India-, -Singh, Jay Shankar 2011. Regarding methane, people also forget that once soil is tilled, left expose and or treated with nitrogen inputs, the soil microbial activity and especially the methanotrophic activity is greatly reduced. If crops are not rotated properly, the soil can become infertile and nothing can be grown for several years. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that the loss of grasslands has grave impacts for biodiversity as well. They provide a host of economic, environmental, and socio-cultural benefits. The Washington Post recently published a comprehensive piece on this trend, noting that the confluence of biofuel expansion, improved crop genetics, a longer growing season (due to climate change), as well as the oil boom in North Dakota, contributed to a precipitous decline of grasslands. Photo: Aaron Price. But as the study goes onto state, turning grassland to cropland can have negative consequences for the larger environment: For instance, it’s bad news for wildlife, because corn fields are much less inviting habitat for a wide range of wild creatures, from ground-nesting birds to insects, including bees. Fertilizers, pesticides, silt, and soil wash from the converted grasslands into creeks, polluting the Mississippi River system with a witches’ brew that helps create a bacteria-infested, algae-clogged, anaerobic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. The first map has “shurbland” instead of shrubland. The world may need to feed some 9 billion people by mid-century, which could mean doubling food production from current levels. Land, after all, is the raw material of agriculture, like steel and rubber are the raw materials of a car. Perhaps least appreciated, however, is the role grasslands play in storing carbon, which, when released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is a major contributor to global warming. Thank you for this excellent article! Grasslands provide protection against floods and droughts, have the potential to store carbon in the soil, and in turn, help increase overall climate stability. Thus arguments for crops instead of ruminants are often ironic when assessing adverse water use impacts. The bad news: it would slash yields by around 40%, forcing hungry Britons to import more food from overseas. We use grasslands for many purposes—from raising livestock to providing recreational space to protecting wildlife. Map 1. They found that during the period of 2008-2012, large swaths of new ground were “cultivated” or plowed and planted to annual crops for the first time. Introduction. Unfortunately, funding for such programs has fallen flat over the last many number of years. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition outlined a number existing Farm Bill programs that seek to improve soil health, increase carbon stored by soil and help strengthen climate resilience. However, as our colleagues at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition have noted, there are many shortcomings in the rule as currently written and administered. The plants provided food and nourishment for animals and the animals, in turn, stimulated growth in the plants, fertilized and distributed seed over the soil. The new Agricultural Disaster Trust Fund is a bad deal for taxpayers and the environment, and it should not be included in the final 2008 farm bill. Farms feed us. Allen isn’t the only who sees great potential in integrating animals back to the land. As lead author Christopher Wright told NPR, “This is kind of the worst-kept secret in the Northern Plains.” You can literally see the land being converted by the plow. Given a similar intersection of climate and economic factors at present, scientists now speculate that we could be headed for another Dust Bowl. Except for the hard-working part, don’t believe it. (In 2013 the … Compared with other regions, producers in the Northern Plains were more likely to convert grassland to cropland or retain land in crops rather than returning it to grass. When natural grasslands are tilled for planting, nearly half of the carbon stored in the soil surface is lost to the atmosphere. Will you join us? For cattle raised in grassland ecosystems 98% of that 98% is “green” water which is primarily rain fall. For example, popular programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program fund approximately half of the applications they receive. 1. A replicated study from 1992 to 1994 in the South Downs Environmentally Sensitive Area, Sussex, UK (Wakeham-Dawson 1995) found that foraging brown hares Lepus europaeus generally avoided farms and areas of farms that had been converted from arable crops to Environmentally Sensitive Area grasslands. He can try to squeeze more crop out of the land he’s already farming, which is something American farmers have been pretty good at. Introduction. Support from UCS members make work like this possible. As Dr. Kennedy's editorial correctly pointed out, the challenge of feeding a population of >9 billion is daunting, and because arable land and clean water resources are already limited, it will only be possible … Source: USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture. The Congressional Research Service reports that these programs often have demand from farmers that far exceeds the monies that Congress makes available. We’ll be living on Planet Corn Belt. Appointing Qualified Government Officials Isn’t Rocket Science: Here’s How To Do It. Widespread degradation of soils in Africa has been a result of unsustainable farming practices including the continuous tilling of land and leaving land bare after crop harvests. Crop insurance, on the other hand, is available to 100% of eligible producers who sign up and works more like a blank check without any payment caps. Among the list of considerations is soil erosion. Methanotrophs: the potential biological sink to mitigate the global methane load. So, although policies have tried to help protect grasslands and strengthen agricultural resilience to climate change, there is a lot more work to be done. © 2020 TIME USA, LLC. Source: National Climate Assessment. Study: As forests, grasslands gave way to farms, soil carbon emissions soared BY MARK FOSS The conversion of pasture to agricultural land has released more carbon from the soil in several South American grasslands in the past 40 years than the conversion of forests to grassland during the three centuries before, according to a new report. But poor agricultural practices can ruin soil … But converting grassland into other land use can have a significant impact on carbon storage and carbon release. In fact, this extends the pattern of cropland establishment in the U.S., since most of today’s Corn Belt replaced grasslands and prairies. More land means more crops. Much of the earth’s grasslands are over used and poorly managed (Oldeman 1994), and signiﬁcant amounts of native forest, shrubland, and woodland have been converted to grassland (DeFries et al. The next map illustrates that there are several crops that took their place, including cotton in western Texas, wheat in the southern Great Plains, and corn and soybean in the northern Great Plains. No You Don’t. California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard Accelerating Transportation Electrification, On Day One, President-Elect Biden Can Better Prepare Communities for the Next Disaster. One policy initiative intended to help protect grasslands is the “Sodsaver Provision,” an addition to the 2014 Farm Bill. (Corn yields per acre have increased by more than two and a half times since 1960.) The US Forest Service outlines a host of grasslands benefits but the ones I want to focus on are related to climate. So in essence, we’re trading grasslands that do not require extra water for crops that need irrigation to survive, a counter-intuitive move, particularly in areas where irrigation and drinking water supplies are dwindling. The order for the report was couched in the 2008 Farm Bill. The conversion of grasslands also compromises the ecological services provided by the Great Plains, the WWF report notes, such as the filtering of trillions of gallons of water that goes on to be used as drinking water for millions of people and helps support healthy fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. Why Messing With Your Body Clock May Make You Sick, Remember That? There are many other programs funded by the Farm Bill that seek to optimize agricultural land management—including grasslands—for climate benefit. They’re found in areas with more rain than the desert and less than the tropics, and as a result, are ideal places for humans to inhabit. All rights reserved. What do we mean by the term grassland agriculture? When industrial critiques are made of extensive systems to promote intensive ones, these critiques do not account for any mitigation of GHG’s from either carbon sequestration or methane oxidation. There are much better uses for the money. In short, using grasslands for things like wildlife habitat or grazing animals (like cattle), which eat the grass and convert it to human food, is often less resource intensive than agricultural systems featuring annual crops, which might not be as well suited a use for such environments. All could benefit from increased funding. In the Northern Plains, about 1 percent of 1997 rangeland For either cool-season or warm-season perennial grasses, seeding into soybean stubble with a grassland drill will be reasonably simple. GM’s Environmental About-Face – Political Expedience or Real Leadership? This post is part of a series on Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change. Population growth in the United States is almost entirely driven by the federal government's immigration policy. 1% of the water footprint number). Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed. Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. Another Reason Energy Costs are Higher in Winter, Contracts to Burn: How Long-Term Fossil Fuel Contracts and Power Purchase Agreements Lock In Pollution, Top Four Ways that the Biden Administration Can Center Environmental Justice Reform, Five Years on, Keeping the Hope of the Paris Agreement Alive and Strong, Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy. Just a couple things to add on methane and water. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. The amount of carbon in the soil helps offset the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is an alarming trend because we need grasslands for climate adaptation (buffering floods and droughts) as well as for carbon storage and mitigation. A quarter of Earth was once covered by grasslands, but much of these have now been turned into farms. Furthermore grazing per this study- Grazing affects methanotroph activity and diversity in an alpine meadow soil: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237823417_Grazing_affects_methanotroph_activity_and_diversity_in_an_alpine_meadow_soil – also seems to increase methanotrophic activity. , just as much as 5 % of grassland per year was converted to farmland funding for such has! The scientists, 7 Common Excuses people use to avoid Wearing Masks, and socio-cultural benefits a... Is _________ turned into farms purposes—from raising livestock to providing recreational space to protecting.... Since 1960. ) affecting our food and agriculture system t believe it 1997 rangeland 1 flat! 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