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Highlights

The nation's remaining grassland has several important benefits, such as providing land for grazing and wildlife habitat for many at-risk species. However, over the past 3 centuries about half of the grassland has been converted to other uses, principally cropland. In addition to losing important grassland values, such conversions may result in increased spending on federal farm programs, such as crop insurance, especially in marginal areas. GAO examined (1) the extent of grassland conversions to cropland and the cost of farm program payments for these newly converted cropland acres; (2) the relative importance of farm program payments versus other factors in producers' decisions to convert grassland to cropland; and (3) any impact the Sodbuster conservation provision--which places soil erosion standards on certain converted land--has had on limiting grassland conversions.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture To better understand the extent to which farm programs, such as crop insurance, and conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, may be working at cross purposes, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Economic Research Service, the Administrator of the Farm Service Agency, and the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to jointly study this issue and report their findings to the Secretary and the Congress.
Closed - Implemented
In June 2011, USDA issued a report--"Grassland to Cropland Conversion in the Northern Plains: The Role of Crop Insurance, Commodity, and Disaster Programs"--that includes analysis of the role of farm programs in farmers' decisions to convert grassland to cropland. The report also provides analysis of conversions of cropland to grassland, including conversions through the Conservation Reserve Program. USDA's Economic Research Service performed the analysis and prepared the report. USDA's Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service participated in the initial planning and provided assistance during the study.
Department of Agriculture To provide policymakers and stakeholders with more comprehensive and current information on the extent of native grassland conversions to cropland, the associated farm program costs of these conversions, and their impact on natural resources, the Secretary of Agriculture should annually track native grassland conversions to cropland in those geographic areas where such conversions can occur.
Closed - Implemented
Beginning in fiscal year 2011, USDA's Farm Service Agency established a process to compile county level information that tracks the number of acres of land annually converted to cropland.

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