Corn Ethanol’s Assault on the American Prairie
America’s native prairie is our country’s most endangered ecosystem. As the first settlers and explorers began their march west, they marveled at the vast expanses of prairie in this new country, as well as the host of amazing wildlife that inhabited them. Great herds of bison and antelope migrated over thousands of miles. Enormous flocks of waterfowl, sage grouse, prairie chickens, and songbirds clouded the sky. And an incredibly diverse array of grasses and flowers provided food and shelter for wildlife and humans alike.
Today, native grasslands face a crisis, with less than 10 percent of them left untouched, and less than 5 percent of tallgrass prairies remaining. Agriculture has been the primary driver of grassland losses, as the fertile soils that fed these habitats have proven optimal for crop production without difficult forest removal. The ethanol mandate has only served to accelerate that loss by adding to the demand for crops. By law, oil refiners are required to blend 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol into our gasoline. This means that about 10 percent of the fuel in our cars is made from corn rather than from oil. It takes a lot of corn to make that much ethanol, and it takes a lot of land to grow that much corn. In fact, about 40 percent of the corn grown here in America is shipped to an ethanol refinery rather than to an animal feedlot or a backyard barbecue.
Since the current ethanol mandate was put in place in 2007, farmers have responded to the increased demand for corn by breaking new ground in order to cash in on rising prices. While more efficient farming and increasingly high yields have reduced the amount of farmland over time, the last 10 years saw a reversal of that trend, as industrial-scale farms planted the largest corn crop since World War II. Where did all this new land come from? Mostly, this bumper crop has come at the expense of grasslands, including large swaths of native lands that had never before been cleared for agriculture or development.
From 2008-2012, the years immediately following the enactment of the ethanol mandate, more than 7 million acres of land were converted into farming.
That’s an area the size of Massachusetts brought under the plow, and in some places this conversion occurred at rates matching or exceeding tropical deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia.
Preventing further native prairie loss and maintaining the health of America’s grasslands is of prime concern to the National Wildlife Federation. A safeguard in the law establishing the ethanol mandate was meant to prevent this type of land conversion, yet the U.S. government has failed to implement this provision. Instead, the policy has helped add fuel to the destruction.
The National Wildlife Federation is working to protect the American prairie by urging the U.S. EPA to enforce laws already on the books to stop habitat destruction, as well as working with Congress to fix the ethanol mandate to ensure the law works for people and wildlife.