13 November 2023

Canada and U.S. have lost 130,000 km2 of grasslands in ten years


According to WWF’s latest study, in the past year, grasslands have ceded nearly 6,500 km2 of soil to conversion. With obvious consequences for carbon release

by Matteo Cavallito


In 2021, the latest year for which final data are available, 1.6 million acres (nearly 6,500 km2) of grasslands in the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains were converted. The figure brings to 32 million acres, or 129,500 km2, the total amount measured in the region since 2012. This is reported in WWF’s latest report.

The survey analyzes the rate of grassland conversion in the U.S. and Canadian portions of the Great Plains based on data from the government agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The importance of grasslands

“The destruction of the Great Plains is more than just a problem for people living in states like Montana and South Dakota,” the report states. “Whether it’s more frequent and intense droughts due to increasing amounts of carbon in the atmosphere when grasslands are plowed, or aquifers that aren’t replenished due to lost infiltration and increased run-off from plowed fields, the loss of grasslands is affecting us all.”

The issue is widely known given the recognized importance of these environments in climate regulation. A recent FAO publication estimated that the top 30 centimeters of grassland soil on the Planet absorbs 63.5 million tons of carbon annually. Application of good management practices, such as incorporation of animal manure, agroforestry and rotational grazing, would increase storage by between 0.18 and 0.41 tons of carbon per hectare each year.

A long-term phenomenon

Grassland conversion is historically linked to the expansion of U.S. agribusiness. The United States, the report says, remains one of the world’s largest producers of food. A record that contrasts with the goals of nature conservation and biodiversity. Over time, however, the dynamics have changed and large fractions of the plains are now converted to the production of resources as diverse as biofuels.

“Most of the grasslands with soils best suited for farming were plowed up decades ago,” the study continues. Today, “In many cases, the remaining intact grasslands are not as productive for row crop farming. Instead, it is often policy-based incentives rewarding plow-up and not necessarily the need for more space to grow food.”

In the Great Plains more than 1.3 million km2 are still intact

The consequences are well known, with obvious damage to biodiversity, which is expected to decline due to the inability of species to adapt to human-imposed changes. Within this framework, however, the situation is not yet compromised, and there is no shortage of opportunity for change. According to the report, there are still nearly 377 million acres – or 1.364 million square kilometers – of unconverted grasslands in the Great Plains. This prompts a call for policymakers to take action.

WWF, in particular, calls into question the upcoming renewal of the Farm Bill, the regulation that covers U.S. agricultural policy and is reviewed every five years (last time in 2018). The organization is therefore calling on the U.S. Congress to ensure a number of measures. These include the continuation of the $20 billion funding package for conservation activities in the recent Inflation Reduction Act. But also the strengthening of other initiatives (such as the Conservation Reserve Program that compensates farmers who remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production), and the involvement of Native communities in affected territories.