Aug. 06--The nation's wild lands are being converted to agriculture at an unprecedented rate, according to a new report released Monday by two national conservation groups.
Driven by high commodity prices and crop insurance programs that eliminate risk for farmers, a total of 23 million acres, or 36,000 square miles, of grassland, wetlands and shrublands were converted to agricultural uses between 2008 and 2011, primarily for corn, wheat and soybeans. Most of the change occurred in the mid section of the country, with high concentrations in Minnesota and the Dakotas, the report said.
Ken Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, described the findings "as a rude awakening." The research, which used satellite data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was conducted in an attempt to persuade Congress to tie federal agricultural subsidy programs for farmers to how they implement conservation practices on their land. Also participating in the study was Defenders of Wildlife.
There is a "strong correlation" between crop insurance subsidies and conversion rates, Cook said. The highest rates of land transformation occurred in counties with the highest rates of crop insurance subsidies, he said.
Both houses of Congress have versions of a new farm bill that would provide billions of dollars in subsidies to farmers through crop insurance programs, which would reduce farmers' financial risk by guaranteeing them minimum commodity prices. But only the Senate version also would require farmers to adhere to farming practices that protect sensitive land and prevent pollution runoff.
The differences between the two proposals are expected to be resolved when Congress takes up the farm bill in the fall.
Josephine Marcotty --612-673-7394
(c)2012 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Visit the Star Tribune (Minneapolis) at www.startribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services