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Farmland expansion increases carbon footprint in Corn Belt, according to Iowa State University research

This news story was published on December 3, 2018.
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Farmland near Mason City, Iowa

AMES – Faster conversion of land into agricultural production in recent years has raised the region’s carbon cost of producing grains, according to recently published research from an Iowa State University scientist.

The study, published in the academic journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that increases in crop production due to expanding acreage devoted to agriculture in five Midwestern states between 2006 and 2016 has reduced the region’s soil carbon content. The reduced carbon storage capacity means that some carbon that once resided in the soil and plant life is released into the atmosphere instead. Because carbon is a component of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, its transfer from the ground into the atmosphere can contribute to climate change, while keeping it stored, or sequestered, in the ground takes the carbon out of circulation and slows the greenhouse effect.

“When people think of land-use changes with environmental and climate consequences, much attention has been paid to tropical deforestation or drained peatlands,” said Chaoqun Lu, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology and lead author of the study. “Intensive and extensive farming in the U.S. Corn Belt can have environmental and climate outcomes that demand our consideration as well.”

Crop production must grow in order to meet rising global demand for food, Lu said. Meeting that demand will require either what the researchers call “intensive” farming practices that will increase yields per acre, or “extensive” farming practices that will expand the available acres for cultivation, or both. Studies across the world have argued that expanding cropland for additional production may lead to loss of plant and soil carbon and threaten the survival of wildlife. That’s because newly expanded cultivation usually clears land, disturbs the soil and releases carbon stored in the ground, she said.

The researchers used an index of agricultural carbon footprint to measure the carbon cost of per-unit grain production and the reasons responsible for its change in the Western Corn Belt. The study shows those changes factored into the region’s grain production shifting from carbon neutral to carbon loss during the most recent decade, meaning the region emits more carbon when producing per unit of grain than it did in previous decades. The study found that every kilogram of additional grain yield added during the 2006-2016 period, the region’s soil lost 2.3 kilograms of carbon.

The study analyzed satellite products and reconstructed historical data on land use changes in
Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska over a period of decades. The researchers then used a computer-based ecosystem model to distinguish and quantify how land use, agricultural management practices and natural drivers such as climate change have affected crop production as well as carbon storage. Lu said the study found the area of natural vegetation converted to agricultural production tripled during the decade between 2006 and 2016 compared to the period between 1980 and 2005. Much of those land use changes occurred in the Dakotas and Minnesota as grasslands and wetlands were converted into farm fields, Lu said. Such changes were estimated to cause a net soil carbon loss, offsetting 12 percent of the reported land use-induced carbon sink in North America in the same period.

“The enlarging negative carbon footprint indicates the major role that cropland expansion has had on the carbon cost of grain production in this region,” the study notes.

ISU researchers who contributed to the study include Zhen Yu, a postdoctoral research associate in ecology, evolution and organismal biology; Mahdi Al-Kaisi, a professor of agronomy and extension soil and water specialist; Yuyu Zhou, an assistant professor of geological and atmospheric sciences; and the late Raymond Arritt, former professor of agronomy.

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13 Responses to Farmland expansion increases carbon footprint in Corn Belt, according to Iowa State University research

  1. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 8, 2018 at 11:31 am

    Flip/flop – remember a few years back THEY were worried that too much farmland was being sold for development and paved over ? Think Ioway still has some rules governing this.

  2. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 8, 2018 at 11:14 am

    Actually 20% of your body mass is carbon. Maybe you zombies should visit you local DNC headquarters and ask for an operation to remove the carbon in your worthless carcass and replace it with jello as you have no backbone or useful brain cells.

  3. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 8, 2018 at 11:08 am

    Actually this is fake news – for any form of life to exist on earth – we need photosynthesis – where plants and trees produce oxygen for us. These plants need 2 things to produce oxygen CARBON gases from fossils fuel consumption or from the ground going into our atmosphere AND sunshine. So the fuel you use in your auto actually benefits greenhouse gas – which is oxygen stupid! Our globe controlled peons are lying to you. Their other solution is already in place – geoengineering – or atmosphere dimming – spraying sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere at high altitudes to produce cloud cover which we now have 5 out of 7 days. So liberals you get rid of carbon gases and sunshine we have no oxygen ! Google it up you fools – remember YOU do have a computer or you would not be reading this. PS – remember the last time you were in a greenhouse ? Nothing like good old breath of FRESH air. Evil people will do anything for power

    • Avatar

      Anonymous Reply Report comment

      December 8, 2018 at 5:27 pm

      Geezus, this is the dumbest post I’ve read here in a long time. Which is really saying something because this site attracts the dumbest of North Iowa’s dumb on the regular.

      You might want to leave the science-ing to scientists. Maybe start with having someone explain to you the conservation of mass as oxygen cannot magically be created from carbon.

  4. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 5, 2018 at 8:14 am

    They bitch about the methane from cattle and hogs causing climate change, but forget the plains were covered with millions and millions of buffalo creating methane and it didn’t kill the planet.

    • Avatar

      Anonymous Reply Report comment

      December 8, 2018 at 2:46 pm

      And roads and factories and steel mills and etc you jerk

  5. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 4, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    Next when the controllers figure out humans are made of dirt and carbon they will convince a few brain dead communist college kids to tax every breath of co2 the workers in all the capitalists countries breathes then all of a sudden the fake footprint disappears . And the elite communist dumocrats keep control. Bunch of creeps.

  6. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 4, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    Kill’em all go Trump we have Walmart!

  7. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 4, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    Google earth is enough to show how much pollutants are being pushed from upper states water sources that feed into larger rivers, and eventually destroy life in the golf of mexico and beyond. All because of greed. Turning a blind eye to this is what past generations have done, and will continue to do until it is to late.

  8. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 4, 2018 at 9:12 am

    That roundup corn is only good for the chinamen and gassychol .

  9. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 4, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Isn’t that strange? The poor farmers say they can’t sell what they have but are plowing up more land.

  10. Avatar

    Anonymous Reply Report comment

    December 3, 2018 at 10:28 pm

    BS. Scientists say what the people who pay them want them to say.

    • Avatar

      Anonymous Reply Report comment

      December 4, 2018 at 12:26 pm

      Just because people like yourself lack any form of integrity doesn’t mean that the rest of us do.