Growing Corn Imperils Wildlife?

University study claims increased acreage from biofuel demand converts wildlife habitat to cropland.

The University of Michigan School of Natural Resources released on January 13, 2010, a new controversial report ( entitled "Corn Ethanol and Wildlife" which declares that increased corn acreage has created "the perfect storm" of incentives that is encouraging the conversion of wildlife habitat to cropland.  The study further claims that increased corn plantings are heavily concentrated in the Prairie Pothole Region of North and South Dakota as well as Minnesota. The report also claims "Loss of native prairie is devastating for the many species of wildlife that depend on this habitat for breeding, migration, and food."   


This is another attack on tillage agriculture!


The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) takes considerable exception to the University of Michigan report and claims the report does not establish "…credible causal link between ethanol expansion and agricultural land use decisions…" Moreover, RFA claims that the Michigan conclusion that increased corn acreage has lead to a net loss of grassland is not supported by USDA data.


In fact, RFA points out in its response that the increase in corn acreage has been accomplished due to crop switching. The Michigan report appears to overlook this very important issue. Serving as General Counsel for the National Wheat Growers and the National Sorghum Growers, I can attest to the fact that total acreage for wheat and sorghum have been decreasing with many of those acres going into corn.


The University of Michigan report is certainly an attempt to influence policy makers here in Washington and across the country regarding the belief that corn acreage expansion for ethanol will negatively impact wildlife and habitat systems. In fact, the report claims "while many factors influence land use changes, the relationship between ethanol incentives and habitat destruction is fairly clear. Ethanol incentives increase demand for corn which in turn increases corn prices. Increased corn prices lead to land being converted from other uses to corn production." 


Increasing corn prices? The report seems to assume ever increasing corn prices. Somehow the Michigan researchers managed to miss last week's huge drop in corn prices due to the near record crop. 


Reports such as this one from the University of Michigan clearly recognize that the 2005 and 2007 Energy Bills mandate huge increases of ethanol and other biofuels. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 increased the mandate for corn ethanol through 2015 at a level around 15 billion gallons. This could change if EPA allows increased ethanol into fuel blends.


EPA should release, any day, its new Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) which will likely have an enormous impact on increased demand for biofuels. The University of Michigan report clearly is an effort to stop an effort which it believes is a trend which takes acres out of grassland away from habitat and wildlife and convert these acres into corn land or other biofuel crops.


The RFA review ( prairie_pothole_paper.pdf) declares that the Michigan study deliberately picked and chose certain data to support their conclusions, selected agricultural data points that are outliers when compared to long term historical trends, relies on data that is inconclusive or limited in scope, and suggests USDA data contradicts the University of Michigan data. 


RFA points out that corn acreage has increased in the four-state region (North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa) studied by the Michigan researchers, but according to USDA data, total crop acres in the four states actually declined slightly. RFA claims "…it can be argued the increase in corn acreage in the region was exclusively accommodated through crop switching."


As I look at the data from USDA, it would appear RFA is correct. USDA data supports what most of us know intuitively and that is recent increases in corn and soybean acres are being offset by decreases in cotton, sorghum, and wheat acres. One very good argument set out by RFA is "The twenty-year U.S. average total acreage for the nine major U.S. crops plus CRP (conservation reserve program) is 285.3 million acres…or 1% below the average."


The report from Michigan concludes that the U.S. will need another 10.5 million acres of land to grow corn and to meet ethanol demand. It might have been helpful for the authors to consult with their colleagues at Michigan State, where they might have learned that corn yield per acre is not static at 150.68 bushels per acre between the years of 2010 and 2015. This year it appears we will have a record yield of 165.2 bushels per acre and this is with one of the worst planting and harvesting seasons that many of us can remember.  


Those in production agriculture will continue to see major reports criticizing agriculture and ethanol. It is always helpful when reading these reports to remember Mark Twain's admonition that he attributed to Disraeli. There are "lies, damned lies, and statistics."

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