Coalition Report

By Kathleen Logan Smith, Executive Director ; Missouri Coalition For The Environment

Paying for Pollution Must End

In this column, we’ve been learning more about the U.S. Farm Bill, the package of legislation that impacts our food system- what is grown, how it’s grown, and how much it costs. The Farm Bill, or the Food Bill as it should be known, is reauthorized every five years or so by Congress. The next one will be written in 2012.

With devastating drought down south and catastrophic floods up north, the connection between soil and water is sharply in focus this year. This is a good time to focus on soil, that mixture of minerals and organic matter that is the narrow zone between healthy harvests and food disasters.

Good soil makes good food. Ask a farmer. Ask a chef. Ask a nutritionist. Good soil grows food that contains more nutrients and tastes better. Good soil harbors microorganisms by the millions that break down minerals into usable forms for plants. It stores more carbon. It absorbs water that helps recharge streams, rivers and aquifers. Our bodies need micronutrients and minerals that come from good food grown on good soil.

Treated well, soil delivers tangible benefits. Treated poorly, and soil is vulnerable to erosion by water and wind. Intensive industrial agricultural practices and reliance on chemicals can degrade the life in the soil- leaving it “dead”. Dead soil has a reduced population of microorganisms. It has fewer mechanisms to transform minerals into useable forms resulting in less nutritious food. It lacks the diversity of life that increases its porosity and thus its ability to absorb and store water. It stores less carbon.
The Food Bill- which was called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act in 2008- contains farm safety net programs ranging from crop insurance assistance to conservation cost-share incentive payments that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to agricultural operations.

Good farming practices like planting cover crops instead of leaving soil bare over the winter help restore health and life to the soil. That’s why in 1985 the Food Bill required that conservation plans should be developed for farm land especially susceptible to erosion. And if a farmer chose not to and abide by the plan and protect the soil, that farmer would forgo part or all of the other public subsidies the farmer would otherwise have been eligible to receive. This provision of farm law created the logical covenant that a producer who accepts the public’s money will also be expected to protect the public good captured in the soil. Unfortunately, what is now the single largest program for delivering subsidies to producers—the federal crop insurance program—was exempted from this covenant in 1996. With generous profits from $7 a bushel corn, the financial incentives are tipped against good soil conservation practices right now. Farmers are tempted to plant every acre. And the Food Bill’s most lucrative form of farm payment does not currently require even a bare minimum of soil conservation practices.

It’s time for Americans to consider getting more for our money. Shouldn’t all farms receiving taxpayer dollars be responsible for good soil conservation practices? Why should we fund any operation that allows our soil and all the agricultural chemicals in it to be washed downstream?

This summer, Dr. Nancy Rabalais from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium will measure the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The Dead Zone is caused by agricultural pollutants delivered by the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizer pollution causes oxygen deprivation in the ocean. Fish, shrimp and other sea creatures cannot tolerate the low level of oxygen and either leave or die. It happens every year and this perennial disaster has cost the coastal fisheries hundreds of millions of dollars. Lakes and waters elsewhere in the Mississippi River basin have also suffered from farm pollution, fueling fish kills and outbreaks of toxic cyanobacteria in lakes from Minnesota to Oklahoma.

The US Dept. of Agriculture estimates that about 50 million of the nearly 273 million acres of the nation’s cropland that is not subject to conservation requirements is experiencing a high rate of erosion and loss in long-term soil productivity. In Missouri, we lost 55.8 million tons of soil in 2007. The Corn Belt states together lost 343.3 million tons of soil that year.
Requiring all recipients of Food Bill agricultural dollars to be good stewards of the land and comply with Conservation Plans would help keep millions of acres of our nation’s soil intact and our waters healthy. This is called “conservation compliance”.

Conservation compliance belongs in our nation’s Food Bill. It’s cost effective. It’s overdue. And it’s simple: save the soil or we’ll save our money.