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Changing Their Minds on “Land Use Change”?

June 27, 2024

Agriculture, Environment


By Geoff Cooper, RFA President and CEO


In early 2022, University of Wisconsin researcher Tyler Lark published a study claiming that U.S. farmers had converted several million acres of pristine grassland and other “seminatural areas” to cropland in response to the Renewable Fuel Standard and growth in ethanol production.


The study was accompanied by a well-funded, well-orchestrated public relations blitz that resulted in dozens of news articles and editorials, widespread radio and TV coverage, and echo-chambering on blogs and social media channels. Even though the study’s methods and findings were roundly criticized and swiftly rebuked by the scientific community, the massive PR push behind the study unfortunately succeeded in spreading the “land use change” myth far and wide.


Two years later (March 2024), Lark published another study on land use change. Only this time there was no big publicity campaign. No interviews on NPR, no pithy feature story on Fox News or HBO talk shows, no social media blasts, no TIME magazine pieces, no National Wildlife Federation press conferences, no congressional staff briefings (those are all things that really happened after the 2022 study). In fact, the newest Lark study made about as much noise as a tree falling in the woods.


Why? What changed? How come there wasn’t a massive PR effort around the new land use study?


Put simply: the results of the new Lark paper don’t fit the doomsday narrative that was carefully crafted by media-savvy PR firms following the release of 2022 study. Indeed, the new Lark study actually contradicts and undermines his study that made headlines two years ago. That’s why they’re keeping it quiet.


Using the same satellite imagery approach that Lark used for the 2022 study, this newest study shows that between 1986 and 2018—a timeframe that encompasses the period of rapid growth in ethanol production—more than 30 million acres of U.S. cropland were abandoned and transitioned into grassland/permanent pasture, forest, shrubland, wetlands, urban areas, and other uses.


Wow! That’s right…rather than claiming cropland expanded into grassland and forest areas during the biofuels era (like his previous papers), this new Lark study suggests the exact opposite occurred.


According to the new analysis, U.S. cropland area significantly receded over the 33-year period examined—and in its place, grassland, permanent pasture, trees, and shrubs sprang up. Some of the ground was enrolled in CRP, but most was not. Lark and his colleagues concluded that “among the abandoned croplands, 53% changed to grassland and pasture, 18.6% to shrubland and forest, 8.4% to wetlands, and 4.6% to non-vegetated lands” (it seems likely that “non-vegetated land” is mostly urban/suburban land).


These findings appear generally consistent with land use data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and EPA, which show steadily declining cropland area and stable or increasing forest and grassland over the past several decades.


To put 30 million acres of abandoned cropland into context, consider that roughly 27 million acres of cropland were used to produce 15.6 billion gallons of ethanol and nearly 40 million tons of distillers grains animal feed last year. So, according to Tyler Lark, we’ve lost more cropland in the past three decades than we actually use today for ethanol and its many co-products. It’s also noteworthy that the 2022 Lark study’s highly flawed estimate of land use change (i.e., so-called “natural lands” converted to cropland) caused by the RFS was 4.4 million acres—seven times smaller than Lark’s new estimate of the amount of cropland that transitioned to grassland, pasture, forest, shrubland and other non-crop uses.


So, where did the abandonment of cropland and growth in grassland, forest, shrubland, and wetlands primarily occur? According to the new Lark study, areas with the highest amount of conversion from cropland to non-cropland were the Dakotas, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan also had large amounts of abandoned cropland that transitioned into grassland, forest, and other land types.


Ironically, these are many of the same states where previous Lark studies claimed significant cropland expansion into native lands was occurring—especially the Dakotas, Minnesota, southern Iowa, and northern Missouri. The new study suggests some counties in those same states saw as much as 20-30% of total cropland abandoned and transitioned into other land types between 1986 and 2018.


Moreover: “The cropland abandonment we identify here is expected to persist,” the authors wrote.



They also found that “urban development is another important cause of cropland loss,” and specifically noted Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis and Columbus as cities where urban sprawl has displaced productive cropland.


Now, before you go thinking this group of researchers has finally seen the light, it’s important to note that this new study suffers from many of the same methodological problems and flaws as their previous satellite imagery work (e.g., lumping pasture and grass hay ground together with native grassland; misclassification of certain land cover types in the “Cropland Data Layer” tool).


Nonetheless, it’s intriguing to see Lark and his colleagues arriving at conclusions that so clearly undercut and further discredit their previous land use change studies.


Hopefully, the PR machine that ginned up all the publicity on the 2022 Lark study has a new seven-figure campaign in the works to publicize these results on the substantial amount of cropland abandonment and the remarkable increases in efficiency experienced throughout U.S. agriculture. Will the environmental groups aligned with Lark ask their PR firms to pitch this story to reporters? Will Lark go back on public radio to correct the record? Will Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld or HBO’s John Oliver pick up the story and do a mea culpa after being misled by Lark’s previous work?


We’re not holding our breath.