Data based on tracking erosion after every storm over a period of years shows that farms in Iowa 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.
“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,” said Craig Cox, who manages EWG’s agriculture programs from its Ames, Iowa office. Cox is the lead author of Losing Ground.
Go here for the full Losing Ground Report
Go here for a short video produced by Atlas Films showing EWG’s aerial footage
Go here for an analysis on the policy and political implications of Losing Ground
Go here for the New York Times article
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 University project’s data shows that these statewide or regional estimates are masking the serious damage that occurs when larger storms hit.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that Mississippi loses soil on cultivated cropland at a rate of 5.4 tons per acre per year(that’s about 3-4 dump trucks full), which is 800 pounds more than what is sustainable per acre for Mississippi. But like Iowa, erosion rates are likely much higher that the “Official Rate” on some of Mississippi’s most vulnerable cropland that is not protected by adequate conservation practices.
“This runoff from cropland robs us of valuable topsoil damaging cropland and decreasing food security but it also carries with it nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that harm Mississippi’s rivers and lakes,” says Casey DeMoss Roberts, Assistant Director of Science and Water Policy for the Gulf Restoration Network. “And, the pollution doesn’t stop there, the nitrogen and phosphorus end up in the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the Dead Zone – a New Jersey-sized area of extremely low oxygen that forms each summer off the coast hurting marine life.”
Mississippi River Collaborative members, such as GRN, support the recommendation in “Losing Ground” to increase inspection and enforcement of the Conservation Compliance provisions of the 1985 Farm Bill that requires farmers to implement conservation plans on vulnerable highly erodible land in order to stay eligible for farm subsidy payments.
It is also critically important to strengthen Conservation Compliance provisions in the 2012 Farm Bill by:
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.
- Requiring all producers participating in existing or new crop and revenue insurance programs to meet conservation compliance standards,
- Reopening and revising 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,
- Requiring vegetative buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between row crops and all lakes, rivers and smaller streams, and
- Adequately funding 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.”
The Mississippi River Collaborative has worked since 2005 to strengthen efforts to reduce all types of pollution entering the Mississippi River. For more information on the Collaborative visit www.msrivercollab.org.
The Environmental Working Group 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.
The Gulf Restoration Network is an environmental non-profit committed to empowering people to unite and protect the resources of the Gulf of Mexico for future generations. For more information about the GRN go to www.healthygulf.org.