Real-World Data Debunks University of Wisconsin Land Use Study

In response to a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin that attempts to suggest that growth in U.S. corn and soybean production from 2008 to 2012 drove massive conversion of grassland, forest, and other “native” lands to crop production, Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) Senior Vice President Geoff Cooper pointed to several key pieces of real-world data to topple the study’s already shaky foundations.

Cooper started his response by noting, “contrary to the study’s results, there is no empirical evidence to support the argument that U.S. cropland has expanded since 2008, let alone that large tracts of native grassland and forest have been converted to crops. In fact, USDA data clearly show that the area planted to field crops was more than 1 million acres smaller in 2012 than in 2008.”

“Indeed, the natural conclusion suggested by USDA acreage data is that increases in corn and soybean production have been accommodated through “crop switching” and higher yields per acre—not through conversion of non-agricultural lands.”

Cooper went on to state, “USDA data shows a net reduction in area planted to field crops (i.e., “planted cropland”) between 2008 and 2012. Planted cropland totaled 325.6 million acres in 2008, fell in successive years through 2011, then rebounded to 324.3 million acres in 2012—still more than 1 million acres below 2008 levels.”

He then noted key findings from the most recent Census of Agriculture, including:

  • Total cropland fell 4% (16.7 million acres) from 406.4 million acres in 2007 to 389.7 million acres in 2012.
  • Total woodland increased 2.5% (1.9 million acres) from 75.1 million acres in 2007 to 77.0 million acres in 2012.
  • Permanent pasture and rangeland increased 1.6% (6.5 million acres) from 408.8 million acres in 2007 to 415.3 million acres in 2012.
  • Irrigated land fell by 1.4%, calling into question the paper’s argument that “…cropland expansion…raises substantial concerns about water use and sustainability.”

In conclusion, Cooper stated, “In the end, the authors of the Wisconsin paper fail to explain why their land use results—derived from highly suspect satellite data analysis—differ dramatically from official data reported by USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. The authors suggest cropland has expanded on both a gross and net basis at the expense of grassland, forest and other native lands. Yet, there is little or no evidence in USDA’s widely used data sets that this has in fact occurred, nor is even sufficient anecdotal evidence to substantiate the study’s claims. Instead, USDA data show that the long-term national trend toward less planted cropland persisted following passage of the expanded Renewable Fuel Standard in 2007, and that increases in corn and soybean acres were accommodated through crop switching.”

To read Cooper’s entire analysis, please click here.

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