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Environmentalists say grasslands being converted to corn/soybean crops

National Park Service

A coalition of environmental groups is petitioning the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to drop a practice the groups say is responsible for converting grasslands, woodlands, wetlands, pastures and other non-crop acreage to corn and soybean fields.

The petition says the EPA's own data from 2008-2012 shows that up to 7.8 million acres of non-cropland has been converted to corn and soybeans, the feedstock for biofuels, in violation of a provision of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

The Renewable Fuel Standard mandates a certain percentage of biofuel (corn in the case of ethanol, soybeans in the case of biodiesel) be part of the nation's fuel supply - but not at the expense of converting non-cropland to cropland.  The restriction only allows land that was used to grow crops prior to 2007 to be used to grow feedstocks for the biofuels.

The petition says the conversions are happening in violation of the mandate due to the EPA's "aggregate compliance" approach, which they say is deeply flawed.  From a statement from NWF:

EPA has refused to enforce the law. Instead of verifying that ethanol or biodiesel comes from material grown on eligible cropland (as opposed to converted habitat), EPA has followed an “aggregate compliance” approach, measuring the aggregate amount of land in cultivation, with the goal of ensuring the total land used to produce food and biofuels remains below 2007 levels. The problem with aggregate compliance is that land use changes all the time. Farmland can be – and often is – converted into subdivisions or other uses in one part of the country, while an equal amount of native grassland that provides wildlife habitat is converted to grow corn for ethanol in another part of the country. The net acreage remains the same—yet wildlife habitat is destroyed and carbon sequestered in the previously uncultivated soil gets released into the atmosphere as a harmful greenhouse gas.

The petition estimates the land conversions emit as much CO2 as 22 coal-fired power plants.

The petition says the conversions also lead to increased pollution from fertilizer runoff into bodies of water like Lake Erie, which is experiencing severe cyanobacterial blooms due in large part to the runoff.

The loss of non-cropland is also destroying habitat needed for endangered and threatened species, say the groups.

In Michigan, data from the U.S. EPA indicates 85,682 acres were converted from non-cropland to corn and soybean production.

The petition was filed on behalf of Earthjustice, Clean Air Task Force, National Wildlife Federation, ActionAid, American Bird Conservancy, Environmental Integrity Project, Hoosier Environmental Council, Mighty Earth, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Wild Idea Buffalo Co.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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