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Study Shows Wildlife Habitat Is Disappearing in Favor of Crops for Biofuel

A new study shows that the renewable fuel standard has had an unwanted side-effect: millions of acres of lost wildland.

Wild American buffalo graze in the grasslands of South Dakota. A new study shows that the renewable fuel standard has had an unwanted side-effect: millions of acres of lost wildland.

Wild American buffalo graze in the grasslands of South Dakota. A new study shows that the renewable fuel standard has had an unwanted side-effect: millions of acres of lost wildland.

Wollertz/Shutterstock

When Congress created the renewable fuel standard in 2005 and expanded it in 2007, it was trying to boost the production of homegrown biofuel in an effort to help America wean itself off foreign oil and reduce climate changing pollution. To address concerns that ecologically valuable open land would be converted into cropland to fulfill the law’s mandate for more biofuel, Congress stipulated that crops grown on newly converted agricultural land couldn’t be used for fuel.

But that provision has utterly failed to protect open land. According to a new analysis of satellite data, the renewable fuel standard prompted the conversion of 4.2 million acres of non-cropland—primarily grassland—to agricultural use. Instead of driving down pollution, the standard is swallowing up land that used to sequester carbon, protect water supplies and provide important wildlife habitat.

Instead of driving down pollution, the standard is swallowing up land that used to sequester carbon, protect water supplies and provide important wildlife habitat.

The new study examined land use changes within a 100-mile radius of ethanol refineries between 2008 and 2012—in the immediate aftermath of the renewable fuel standard. An earlier study from the National Wildlife Federation estimated that roughly 7 million acres of land nationwide had been converted into cropland during this period. The satellite data showed that 4.2 million acres of those land conversions occurred around refineries. Most of that land was converted to grow corn and soybeans, and the closer the refinery, the higher the rate of conversion. That’s fairly damning evidence of the effect the renewable fuel standard has had on the environment.

Some of this land is native grassland and prairie that had never before been plowed, and includes important habitat for ducks and waterfowl, the endangered prairie chicken, the swift fox and pollinators such as bees and monarch butterflies. Grasslands soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plant roots that can extend as much as 18 feet below ground.

Grasslands soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plant roots that can extend as much as 18 feet below ground.

Underneath a wide swath of this region runs the vital Oglalla Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water for nearly two million people in the High Plains region. Heavy water use for industrial agriculture is one of the main reasons this aquifer is starting to dry up.

Perhaps even more disconcerting is that nearly a million acres of the land that was converted to cropland used to be part of the Conservation Reserve Program, an initiative that was meant to reduce pressure on farmers to plant more crops. The reserve program provided an enticement to leave non-agricultural land alone, but the renewable fuel standard has undermined that incentive.

The standard is one of a suite of government policies, including crop insurance and other subsidies, that pushes farmers to grow ever more acres of a single crop, usually corn or soybeans. It’s one of the reasons why America devotes 27 million acres of farmland to growing corn for ethanol, instead of growing food for consumption, according to an Earthjustice analysis of USDA data.

[The standard] is one of the reasons why America devotes 27 million acres of farmland to growing corn for ethanol, instead of growing food for consumption.

There’s a movement afoot to reform the renewable fuel standard. It’s largely driven by the oil industry, which wants to get back in the fuel game. Conservation groups are struggling to be heard amidst the battle between Big Ag and Big Oil. A better fuel standard would de-emphasize the production of ethanol and biodiesel from crops and focus instead on the expansion of next-generation cellulosic biofuels made from grass, trees and waste. Biofuels made from cellulose, which can often be grown on degraded or lower-quality land, do not compete with food crops for space and have much lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than corn-based ethanol or petroleum.

According to environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, the average American cornfield feeds just three people per acre, less than a typical farm in Bangladesh. A more sustainable food system would grow more food for more people, while producing less feed for cows and cars. It would also preserve precious land for carbon storage—because without a stable climate in our future, the future of agriculture itself is in doubt.   

About this series

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

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