AMES, Iowa – Data based on tracking erosion after every storm over a period of years shows that Iowa farms are losing precious topsoil up to 12 times faster than government estimates, a disturbing discovery detailed in a new report by the Environmental Working Group. The report, titled Losing Ground, is based on research by scientists at Iowa State University whose methods provide an unprecedented degree of precision in monitoring soil erosion.
Moreover, aerial surveys by EWG and interviews with experts across the Corn Belt indicate that soil erosion and polluted runoff are likely far worse than even the disturbing ISU numbers suggest. The aerial photography showed that many Corn Belt fields are scarred by gullies that funnel soil and toxic farm chemicals into streams ? damage that is not accounted for in official or even ISU’s estimates of soil erosion and runoff.
“What is happening on Iowa farm fields is shocking but goes largely unnoticed,” said Craig Cox, who manages EWG’s agriculture programs from its Ames, Iowa office. Cox is the lead author of Losing Ground.
“We’ve grown complacent thinking we have the soil erosion problem under control, but instead it looks as if we are losing ground in our decades-old fight against this most fundamental and damaging problem in agriculture,” Cox said.
In April 2010, the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service estimated that the rate of soil erosion on agricultural land averaged only 5.2 tons per acre per year in Iowa and 3.9 tons per acre per year across the Corn Belt. On the surface, these data are reassuring, because they suggest erosion is less than the so-called “sustainable rate.” But the more precise look provided through the ISU project’s data shows that these statewide or regional estimates are masking the serious damage that occurs when larger storms hit.
“When a storm hits vulnerable or poorly protected soil, fields lose more soil in a single day than is supposed to sustainable for the whole year, or even decades,” said Cox. “If we had the same kind of information for other intensive corn-growing states, the picture would be the same or worse. Alarm bells should be going off across the Corn Belt.”
Farmers are planting fencerow-to-fencerow in response to high crop prices that are likely here to stay. Misguided mandates for corn ethanol production add fuel to the fire, and flawed government farm and insurance subsidies clear the way for all-out production with little regard for what happens to the soil, water and wildlife habitat.
Chronically underfunded and voluntary agricultural conservation programs cannot compete with the pressure these forces are putting on America’s soil and water. Between 1997 and 2009, the government paid Corn Belt farmers $51.2 billion in subsidies to spur production, but just $7.0 billion to implement conservation practices. The $18.9 billion spent to subsidize expansion of the corn ethanol industry rubs salt in the wound.
USDA should resume full and aggressive enforcement of provisions in the 1985 farm bill that require farmers who accept subsidies to apply soil conservation measures on the most vulnerable cropland. Official reports and anecdotal evidence indicate that enforcement has waned, putting at risk the gains made in soil conservation between 1985 and 1995.
In addition, EWG believes Congress must act to strengthen the conservation compliance provisions when it reauthorizes the farm bill in 2012. Specifically, Congress should:
- Require all producers participating in existing or new crop and revenue insurance programs to meet conservation compliance standards.
- Reopen and revise all the legacy soil conservation compliance plans approved and applied before July 3, 1996, requiring that they reduce erosion to a truly “sustainable” level and prevent ephemeral gully erosion on highly erodible cropland.
- Require vegetative buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between row crops and all lakes, rivers and smaller streams.
- Adequately fund USDA’s technical staff so it can plan and implement the required conservation practices and conduct annual inspections.
“This isn’t rocket science,” said Cox. “Simple, common-sense conservation practices that some farmers have used for years can bring soil erosion under control and protect our streams, lakes and rivers. It seems only fair to ask landowners to take these simple steps in return for the generous public support they receive each year.”
EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, DC that uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment and can be found at www.ewg.org.