Ag Lobby Paints Itself Into a Conservation Corner

There’s a growing public fight brewing over industrial agriculture’s water pollution.

The most prominent scuffle is the Environmental Protection Agency’s highly contentious Waters of the US rule. At the local level much of the heat is centered on the recent lawsuit filed by the Des Moines’ Water Works over fertilizer derived nitrate run-off. Minnesota is also in the throes of an intense debate over Governor Dayton’s (D) mandatory buffer strip proposal that would require natural vegetative filters between farm fields and stream banks.

In all of these instances the Grand Ole Farm Lobby ™ has reacted with the well-worn message of voluntary conservation as the only solution. Let farmers who know their land best make the choice to do what’s right, have taxpayers fund it, and all will be well goes the thinking. We’re told that letting farmers choose whether or not to lower fertilizer use, or employ run-off reducing practices like cover crops is a far better alternative to regulation. That message is the whole pretense of a new campaign – the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water – funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau.

The sad reality of voluntary conservation is that it is demonstrably not working.

It’s not working in Toledo, Des Moines, Minnesota, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not working despite U.S. taxpayers subsidizing agriculture conservation measures nationally $39 billion from 1995-2012, $4 billion in Iowa alone. Worse, conservation funding has taken a congressional hit year after year. Farmers who want to sign up for programs and do the right thing are turned away in droves.

Yet the farm lobby would rather fight for production subsidies than for money for the very thing they say will keep Uncle Sam’s boot out of their ditch.

What’s changed recently – and what should give the GOFL pause — is concerned voices from within the conventional agriculture sector questioning the wisdom of the conservation corner farm groups have painted themselves into.

Bruce Knight is a former Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and a recognized expert on the intersection of conservation and agriculture. On May 11th he wrote in the trade publication Agri-Pulse:

I have long been a proponent of voluntary action as the best approach for addressing environmental concerns. But the ongoing cuts in conservation funding are now putting the success of that strategy at risk. What troubles me most is that no one seems to notice or care.

I am very much afraid that the voluntary efforts may prove insufficient to get the job done and forestall the regulatory approach.

I’ve heard from many farmers and farm organizations that U.S. EPA has overreached with its waters of the U.S. proposals. I agree. But where are those same individuals and groups when the appropriations committees are meeting and discussing how to address the deficit by making cuts?

We need active lobbying by the farm and commodity organizations that truly influence the process.

It’s time to speak out. If we don’t, we risk being unable to accomplish environmental goals voluntarily. Not only can voluntary actions forestall regulation, but full funding of those actions is necessary to curtail the expansion of regulation. And a regulatory approach would cost everyone more in the long run.

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. And Knight’s laudable call will likely land like a bug on the ag lobby’s windshield. This is the same group running out the doomsday clock on climate change after all.

Knight isn’t a lone voice. Marc Ribaudo is a Senior Economist at USDA’s Economic Research Service. He wrote an article in the peer-reviewed agriculture journal Choices on May 1st on “The Limits of Voluntary Conservation Programs:”

Despite billions of dollars of investment in conservation measures over the past several decades agricultural NPS policies do not appear to be enough to address landscape-scale water quality problems.

The current model, where most major agriculture groups don’t lift a finger for conservation funding– while championing it to the public as the only solution for farmers who offload their pollution onto urban water ratepayers — is clearly untenable.

We should be paying farmers to do the right thing. Conservation needs to be viewed as a crop since incentives will be key to water quality and GHG reduction efforts. But if the ultimate goal is clean water and agriculture productivity, then the ag lobby is going to have to fight hard and loud for conservation funding.

Otherwise, regulation is inevitable.

Don Carr