By Rex Graham
A scientific pesticides-versus-plowing spat for more than a year has roiled researchers eager to pinpoint the main cause of the disappearance of grassland birds. It’s not an esoteric, ivory-tower debate.
Dozens of grassland bird species are falling off a population cliff. Solid science is needed for new national and international policies to save everything from Grasshopper Sparrows and Bobolinks to species of amphibians, mammals and other groups.
A plowing-is the-cause study published May 20, 2014 in the science journal PLoS ONE has directly challenged the basic statistical science of the pesticides camp. That camp, led by by Canadian toxicologists Pierre Mineau and Mélanie Whiteside, published an analysis in 2013 in PLoS ONE that seemed at the time to prove that pesticides are the primary cause of the steep and continual decline of grassland birds.
Clear link challenged
The idea that pesticides are the primary cause of the birds’ well publicized decline was initially embraced by the public as well as many scientists. A New York Times editorial said the “clear link between pesticides and grassland bird losses” might also explain European honeybee losses. The Mineau and Whiteside study in 2013 caused an uproar among scientists because safety studies accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were reportedly financed by pesticide manufacturers themselves.
However, using Mineau and Whiteside’s data, the new more rigorous analysis showed that the habitat-loss theory is 1.3- to 21-times more supported by the data than the pesticide-loss explanation.
Neither side is backing down. Neither Mineau nor Whiteside returned birdsnews.com’s emails.
There is no doubt that insecticides affect insect-eating birds such as Western Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Mountain Plovers and McCown’s Longspurs. When farmers plow grasslands, plant crops and apply pesticides, these birds certainly can be exposed. However, the new PLoS study says that the loss of habitat is the real death knell on a population scale.
Environmental attention deficit
The debate comes at a moment in the history of the environmental movement when attention, activism and emotion have shifted to oppose genetic modifications of crops and the herbicides and insecticides used in their cultivation. Loss of habitat is slower and lacks the glamour of an anti-GMO campaign. However, the impact of more and more lost grassland is cumulative and potentially irreversible.
An area of grassland, wetland and wetland buffers the size of Indiana was converted into cropland during the four years ending in 2011. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group that has analyzed USDA’s data and combined it with satellite imagery.
Many would say that both pesticides and habitat loss play a role in the birds’ decline. However, splitting the difference could water down a public policy solution — and more importantly, dilute the money needed to strategically address the avian loss. The fate of grassland wildlife may hinge on the most effective, scientifically based solutions.
Both PLoS ONE studies were based on a database generated by the U.S. Geological Survey’s North American Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS) conducted in 45 states between 1980 and 2003. Such “citizen science” efforts have become increasingly important in large-scale ecological studies with big public policy ramifications.
Pesticide use rising again
In the most recent PLoS ONE study, Jason Hill, a Penn State biologist, and three colleagues used the BBS data to show that habitat loss was 1.3- to 21-times better at explaining the loss of grassland birds than insecticide use, which “has been substantially reduced over the past 30 years.”
While the most toxic organophosphate insecticides were replaced starting in the mid-1970s by much less toxic alternatives, pesticide use is again on the upswing, according to Charles Benbrook, director of the Center for Sustaining Agriculture at Washington State University. He said weeds have become resistant Roundup herbicide and budworms and rootworms have developed tolerance or resistance to Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) traits in genetically modified crops.
Benbrook said that many genetically modified crops are simply losing their competitive edge due to the rise of resistance. “The increase in resistance in the past two to three years has been dramatic, and the farmers have gone back to spraying insecticides,” Benbrook said. “If Roundup-ready had been used in a more disciplined way, the general public would be better off and we wouldn’t have this train wreck coming in weed management.”
Spoiling the market
“I’m excited about the [genetic modification] technology: it has certainly led to more nutritious foods,” Benbrook said. On the other hand, he said excessive marketing of Bt and Roundup-ready crops was too aggressive, leading to overuse and development of resistant weeds and bugs.
“Industry is continuing down this track even though it’s not working,” Benbrook said. “It’s spoiling the market for all GE [genetically engineered] foods, even the ones that could deliver significant benefits.”
Despite the problems, the Penn State researchers say grassland birds are being decimated primarily by the significant, sustained loss of grassland habitat. Where grassland habitat remains, birders arrive to participate in birding tours and bird festivals to enjoy the birds they contain.
The conversion of grassland to cropland in the upper Midwest and Great Plains over the past two decades has transformed wildlife habitat in the U.S. The remaining smaller and fragmented grasslands are more likely to harbor smaller and less diverse grassland bird communities.
“The rates of grassland conversion to corn/soy (1.0 – 5.4 percent annually) across a significant portion of the U.S. Western Corn Belt are comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia,” said a study published in 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Grassland losses a worldwide issue
Temperate grassland is now considered the most endangered habitat worldwide. As the earth’s human population grows, so too will be the demands on the land to produce crops. For example, in South America, where many U.S. grassland bird species spend the winter, grasslands are disappearing faster than forests.
Intensification of farming in the Valles Centrales Grassland in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua Desert has resulted in the loss of habitat there for 28 species of grassland bird species that breed in the U.S. and winter there, according to a 2014 study published in Biological Conservation.
2014 Farm Bill hastens grassland birds’ decline
The 2014 Farm Bill wins little support among wildlife biologists who study grassland birds. It violates the central tenet of conservation biology: habitat conservation.
The Farm Bill increases already embarrassingly generous financial incentives to farmers to plant crops rather than maintain grasslands. The incentives apply even on acres that would be highly erodible if plowed.
In the Farm Bill, the USDA continues to ramp up a crop-insurance-premium-subsidy program that transfers most of the risk of drought and other disasters from growers to U.S. taxpayers. Farmers pay only 35 percent of crop-insurance their premiums. Taxpayers pay 65 percent of their premiums.
Stampede to plow
The lowered risk, coupled with a doubling of corn prices thanks to federal support for the corn-ethanol industry has led to a stampede to plow marginal lands that would not otherwise be farmed. Corn and soybean fields are proliferating in the Dakotas in places where they were never seen before.
As a result of the great grassland grab and bad weather, the number of Ring-necked Pheasants plummeted in South Dakota in 2013. The state’s economy suffered when hunters from Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota stayed home. (Those states have remnant populations of pheasants, if any, because their prairies and grasslands have been plowed.)
South Dakota’s governor convened a statewide task force to address the economic blow of fewer pheasants. It won’t be easy to remedy.
“Crops are planted on extremely marginal land,” Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, said in a telephone interview. “We see a lot of hilltop areas plowed that won’t grow a crop even on a good year. If the risk was on the farmer, instead of the taxpayers, we wouldn’t see crops there.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, discovered that the counties in South Dakota and other states with the highest rates of grassland conversion also benefited the most from crop-insurance payouts when the crops inevitably failed.
The 2014 Farm Bill makes such payouts even more tantalizing with provisions to reduce farmers’ deductibles on claims. The maximum claim payout is as high as 86 percent of a given county’s average yield. (It’s 96 percent for first-time farmers.) It’s little surprise that farmers across the nation are eager to plow more grassland.
“Every square foot that can go under the plow has gone under the plow,” said Craig Cox, Senior Vice President of EWG and author of the 2013 report Going, going, gone. “For grassland birds, it’s a disaster.”
An 2012 EWG study titled “Plowed Under” found that 23,681,611 acres of grassland, wetlands and shrub land were converted into cropland from 2008 to 2011. The greatest loss of habitat was in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. The highest rates of grassland conversion to cropland occurred in Texas and Oklahoma, two states that were exempt from “sodsaver” rules in the 2014 Farm Bill. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, and four representatives from Texas sit on the powerful panel.
Counties in California’s Central and Imperial Valleys have converted wildlife habitat to farmland, including Tulare County. In that county and others nearby, the Tricolored Blackbird, which now nests almost exclusively in California, is near extinction. The birds have lost most of their wetland breeding grounds to intensive agriculture.
Environmental voices soften on Farm Bill
Environmental groups working on Capitol Hill historically have successfully worked with the powerful House of Representatives Agriculture Committee to insert environmentally focused amendments. Not in the 2014 Farm Bill. Rather than join forces, the most powerful environmental groups in the U.S., which have different constituencies, priorities and lobbying strategies, did not join as one voice on one approach for the Farm Bill.
“We’ve learned that trying to work with the Agriculture Committee is not very effective and we tend to loose in the end,” Cox said. Other than the EWG, most environmental groups have put positive spins on the 2014 Farm Bill, or they simply avoid talking about it:
- The Nature Conservancy “strongly supports” the Farm Bill, calling it a “good compromise” that “now provides farmers and ranchers with conservation tools that enable growers to do what they want to do—be good stewards of the land.” The organization didn’t elaborate on the stewardship techniques that growers want to use.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council issued a two-paragraph news release upon passage of the Farm Bill. The NRDC called it good news for American farmers, farm communities and the environment. “It also invests in proven conservation compliance programs that minimize soil erosion, preserve wildlife habitat and protect our rivers and streams.” The NRDC position puts it at odds with ranchers in the Dakotas who see the Farm Bill as an ecological disaster and an attack on ranching ethics of sustainability. Also, more plowed fields are known to worsen flooding, they say.
- The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) said that while the Farm Bill “isn’t perfect,” parts of it support conservation and wildlife. For example, a NWF analysis (PDF) points out that the bill’s “sodsaver” provision, protects the nation’s last few remnants of native prairies by limiting crop insurance on those previously unplowed lands. Rather than a permanent easement on native prairies, the bill provides a short-term limit on federal subsidies to farmers who plow the prairies. Some see the NWF’s qualified support of the sodsaver provisions as a public relations cover for its inability to get a better deal.
- A search of the National Audubon Society’s website with the term “farm bill” yielded nothing on the 2014 Farm Bill.
By the way, the sodsaver provisions in the Farm Bill don’t apply to California and states in the southern Corn Belt, including grassland-conversion hotspots Texas and Oklahoma. Sodsaver provisions also don’t apply to the 32 million acres of replanted prairies that are currently in the CRP program. Sod in CRP lands can be plowed and farmers can immediately get federal crop insurance, which is happening on a huge scale.
To make matters worse, the 2014 Farm Bill slashes the cap on CRP acreage to 24 million acres in 2018. Local and state wildlife groups say the decline of CRP acres is the most significant, most devastating attack on grassland wildlife in the Farm Bill.
Farm Bill benefits wealthiest farms
Federal crop insurance, which began during the Depression, has grown from $2 billion a year seven years ago to $14 billion. Large farming interests get the biggest windfall — both in premium subsidies and in claim payouts.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) has urged Congress to reform crop insurance program to lower its costs at a time of record farm profits and federal budget deficits. The GAO has unearthed waste and excess in agriculture policies and procedures.
For example, the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which administers crop insurance, “doesn’t have the procedures in place consistent with federal internal control standards to prevent potentially improper subsidies on behalf of deceased individuals,” said a June 2013 GAO report.
The GAO also found that in 2011, there were 53 farmers who each received more than $500,000 in premium subsidies. “Congress could achieve up to $1.2 billion per year in cost savings by limiting the subsidy for premiums that an individual farmer can receive each year,” said a 2013 GAO report. The 2014 Farm Bill did not incorporate the GAO recommendation.
In recognition of record high farm incomes and rapidly rising crop and land prices, another GAO report recommended a reduction in the crop-insurance-premium subsidies. The reason was obvious: farmers’ don’t need it, and as farm incomes rose, crop-insurance premiums will rise in parallel to guarantee those higher incomes.
The flow of federal money to farmers has been gushing in recent years despite the recession.
Crop-insurance-premium subsidies have jumped from $1 billion in 2000 to $7 billion in 2012. In that year, the crop-insurance program provided $116 billion in insurance coverage for 281 million acres of farmland. The crop insurance subsidies, which are uncapped in the Farm Bill, are expected to continue rising this decade.
For example, the premium-subsidy rate rose from 37 percent in 2000 to more than 62 percent in 2012. A GAO report said, “If the premium subsidy rate for 2011 had been reduced from an average of 62 percent to 52 percent for all crop insurance participants, GAO estimated that the cost savings would have been about $1.2 billion.”
Of course, that recommended trim was not included in the 2014 Farm Bill. In fact, despite record high farm incomes and land prices, the Farm Bill actually upped the premium subsidy rate from 62 percent to 65 percent. The rate actually ranges from 38 percent to 80 percent, depending on the coverage level and other options chosen by the producer. (One change makes some federal crop insurance more available to organic farmers.)
Guaranteed farm profits
The subsidized risk management has prompted the largest farmers to use their cash surpluses to buy more land. Profits can be virtually guaranteed with a combination of federal crop insurance and supplemental private coverage.
On June 9, 80 acres in northwest Iowa sold for $20,400 an acre, a price described as “certainly headline making” even to farmers. The high price for the land 2 miles east of Boyden was paid despite an outlook for lower farm commodity prices.
Indeed, taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance provides coverage for either lower corn yields, lower incomes or a combination of both.
“You seldom get perfect weather and if you do, you don’t have to worry about it because the harvest is going to make up for the insurance,” said Brent Bishop, a corn and soybean farmer in Illinois. “If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you’re going to get some of your money back from the insurance.”
Both Bishop and Bryan Burnett, a Kansas Wheat farmer, have augmented their subsidized federal crop insurance with additional private crop insurance provided by The Climate Company. The company’s product is called Total Weather Insurance (TWI). “If it doesn’t rain or if you have too many hot days, with TWI you’re still going to be okay,” Burnett said in a Climate Company testimonial. “It’s peace of mind — that’s what it is.”
And the more acres that growers plow, even marginal grassland acres, the more peace of mind they achieve.