Two of America’s largest GMO monocultured crops – corn and soy – are starting to creep into previously un-farmed lands – in an effort to meet the growing demand for biofuels like ethanol. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison used high-resolution satellite imagery to show the extent of farmland expansion from 2008 to 2012. During these years the Renewable Fuel Standard law required all fuels to incorporate a biofuel component – and as a result 40 percent of U.S. corn is now being used to make ethanol.

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The study showed crops commonly used to produce biofuels expanded by 7 million acres, and of that area, 1.6 million acres represented previously undisturbed grasslands.

“We realized there was remarkably limited information about how croplands have expanded across the United States in recent years,” said study lead author, Tyler Lark. “Our results are surprising because they show large-scale conversion of new landscapes, which most people didn’t expect.”

This expansion into untouched grasslands is bad news on a number of fronts because of the diversity of species that live in grassland ecosystems, as well as the fact that these lands are carbon sinks and turning them into farmland emitted an estimated amount of carbon dioxide equivalent to 23 coal-fired power plants operating for a year.

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And perhaps more surprising is the fact that the surge of corn production to produce biofuels has had the reverse effect intended by the Renewable Fuel Standard; an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. According to the study, the conversion to corn and soy alone could have emitted as much CO2 as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year – or the equivalent of 28 million more cars on the road.

The 1.6 million acres adds up to an area about the size of the state of Delaware, and Lark says plowing it up could be a sign of bad things to come. “It mimics the extreme land-use change that led up to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” he notes. “There could be severe environmental consequences for bringing this land into crop production.”

He added that continuing to burn ethanol in vehicles is in essence “plowing up the prairies with each mile we drive.”

Via University of Wisconsin-Madison

Images via Shutterstock (1, 2)