How the US's number one crop is putting grasslands at risk

Collage of corn and corn products

It’s hard to imagine a summer cookout or night at the movies without corn. Also known as maize, this golden grain is the second largest crop in the world—number one in the US—and a standard ingredient in many household products, foods, and beverages. But one of corn’s main uses—making ethanol to power our vehicles—is driving destructive land-use change in already vulnerable grasslands.


Corn is added to a surprising number of items we use every day. Processed into sweeteners, starches, oils, and industrial alcohols, corn products are found in medicines, cosmetics, bioplastics, diapers, crayons, and fireworks—and help give flavor and texture to everything from toothpaste to salad dressing.


Map of corn cultivation in US

Today most corn is grown in the US, where it covers an average of 90 million acres of land annually. More than one-third of those crops are cultivated in the Corn Belt, which includes Illinois, Iowa, and neighboring states.


Grassland habitat lost to agricultural conversion in the Great Plains in 2021, 18% of which was plowed up for corn crops.


Around 40% of corn grown in the US is used to produce ethanol, a renewable biofuel that’s blended into gasoline to reduce emissions and improve air quality. But as demand for biofuel crops has surged, so has the conversion of intact grasslands into croplands, contributing to species declines and increased carbon emissions.

91 ears of corn
80,000 kernels
Sweetens 400 cans of soda
Yields 2.8 gallons of ethanol


50–60 PLANTS


One critical protection for US grasslands is the Farm Bill, which helps farmers, ranchers, and forest owners meet sustainability goals. In 2023, WWF championed several updates to the bill, providing recommendations to Congress aimed at ending habitat conversion, preventing food loss and waste, and protecting threatened wildlife.

Edge of cornfield

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