Voluntary Farm Conservation is Woefully Inadequate

Friday, June 24, 2016

A new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that farm conservation practices in some parts of the Midwest have reduced farm pollution by 5-to-34 percent. Yet researchers are measuring near-record concentrations of farm pollution flowing down the Mississippi River this year.

How can this be?

“The bad news is there is nowhere near enough land owners using those conservation practices, and that’s the reason the water quality is still so poor in those agricultural watersheds,” Craig Cox, EWG’s Senior Vice President of Agriculture and Natural Resources, told the Des Moines Register.

The study included the Upper Mississippi River Basin, which covers most of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois. The research, done from 2006 to 2009, found that when more conservation practices – such as no-till, buffer strips and cover crops – were used, they reduced nutrients flowing into local streams and rivers. The conservation practices reduced nitrates by 5-to-34 percent and phosphorus by 1-to-10 percent, compared to when farmers used no conservation practices. But these nutrient reductions were localized.

Across the country, implementation of conservation practices on farms is very sparse. Some farmers are doing the right thing, but most aren’t – because conservation is voluntary. For example, only 1.7 percent of total farm acres use cover crops, according to a 2015 USDA report. And EWG’s 2016 study, “Fooling Ourselves,” found that Iowa farmers eliminated more acres of pollution-filtering tree and grass buffers than they added between 2011 and 2014.

In spite of the $29 billion taxpayers have shelled out since 2009 to reduce pollution, high levels of cancer-causing nitrates are still flowing down the Mississippi.

Americans have a choice to make: We can fool ourselves into thinking that voluntary practices will eventually clean up farm pollution, or we can require farmers receiving public funding to implement conservation practices that protect public health.

In the words of Led Zeppelin’s iconic song “Stairway to Heaven”: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run/ There's still time to change the road you're on.”


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