Avoided grassland conversion
As populations grow and the demand for food increases, grasslands and shrub lands around the world continue to be cleared for agriculture. When natural grasslands are tilled for planting, nearly half of the carbon stored in the soil surface is lost to the atmosphere.
Keeping natural grasslands and shrub lands intact and healthy will keep that carbon locked below ground, while the grasses and shrubs will continue pulling additional carbon from the atmosphere as they are grown.
Globally, every year roughly 1.7 million hectares of natural grasslands and shrub lands are being converted for crops or other uses—an area slightly larger than Connecticut or Kuwait.
In the United States, 77 percent of land converted to croplands between 2008 and 2012 was from grasslands. Agriculture is also crowding into grasslands in East Africa and West Africa.
Avoiding the conversion of grasslands would prevent the release of 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. That’s comparable to the emissions from 7.4 million passenger vehicles per year.
Feeding our growing planet remains a significant challenge. To avoid the conversion of grasslands, we must improve management of the world’s existing croplands and continue efforts to intensify sustainable agriculture on those lands.
In the U.S., avoiding grassland conversion will require bioenergy and agriculture policies that ensure corn-based bioenergy production does not result in net carbon emissions.
Due to the high demand for arable land, avoiding grassland conversion is a relatively high-cost pathway. However, this strategy can be implemented immediately, assuming the necessary bioenergy and cropland management practices are put into place.
An encouraging sign is that the rate of grassland conversion to cropland is slowing. Since remaining grasslands are more likely to have soil conditions or irrigation challenges unsuitable for growing crops, it will be increasingly expensive to convert these lands. Additionally, natural grasslands provide pollination and pest suppression services that can actually increase productivity of adjacent croplands. Those costs and benefits will provide an economic incentive to increase productivity on existing croplands rather than turning additional grasslands into farms.
Spotlight: Field to Market, United States
Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture is a coalition of U.S. grower organizations, agribusinesses, food companies, conservation groups, universities and public sector partners that has committed to conserve native habitat, improve water quality, improve water and energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb soil erosion.
To achieve these goals, Field to Market aims to engage 20 percent of productive acres of U.S. commodity crop production in its supply chain sustainability program by 2020. For example, Field to Market is working with soybean growers to help Unilever meet a goal of sustainably sourcing 100 percent of its soybean oil by 2020. In Iowa, Field to Market partners (including The Nature Conservancy) are promoting nitrogen efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce nitrogen runoff.
Avoiding grassland conversion could also be helpful in other temperate and tropical grasslands, including those at risk in Africa.