Newly released University of Wisconsin-Madison research shows that crops, including corn and soy, expanded onto 7 million acres of new land in the United States over the last four years.
The study was done to address the debate over whether demand for biofuel crops has led to the conversion of natural areas.
University of Minnesota-St. Paul doctoral student Tyler Lark recently presented his findings to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
“The White House and EPA were both very receptive to our findings,” Lark recently told Crop Protection News. “With respect to EPA, they’re considering the implications of our results.”
The study looked at recent land use across the country, and found expansion in soy and corn production.
“But the expansion was at the cost of grasslands, wetlands and forests," Lark said. "In some instances, the increase was greater than 10 percent."
Lark added he was surprised at the level of conversion.
“We expected conversion in corn, but found that over 40 percent of new corn crops came about bringing in new cultivation," he said.
The added crops could affect prices.
“In recent years, we saw high crop prices bring more land into production, but the 2014 farm bill lowered the number of acres that could be removed from production," Lark said. "Now, with prices down, farmers could be left with land that can’t be utilized."
The results could also carry consequences for the biofuel industry.
“There could be questions to the greenhouse effect due to the new crops," Lark said. "Carbon emissions are greater than were previously expected.”
The conversion to corn and soy alone, Lark said, could have emitted as much carbon dioxide as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year, the equivalent of 28 million more cars on the road. While Lark does not think that would have an impact on the air we breathe, he does think it is a subject that requires further scrutiny.
“We need to understand the magnitude of the carbon emissions; we need an analysis of the complete carbon flux from the conversion,” he said.
Lark also warned that increased cultivation could lead to water contamination and soil erosion.