An age-old quote effectively describes the antagonistic relationship between the environmental movement and the agriculture industry. “It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them,” said 18th century French dramatist Pierre Augustin de Beaumarchais‥
But, the antagonism between farmers, regulators and environmentalists appears to be moving slowly toward common ground.
During a large meeting of regulators, bureaucrats and agriculturists last winter in Des Moines, IA, members of every group seemed to “come clean.” Participants in the Environmental Quality & Agriculture Conference acknowledged past mistakes and successes, and offered ideas about how to proceed in a spirit of cooperation to meet common goals.
At the center of the discussion were the strengths and weakness of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts to gain a better understanding of environmental challenges in agriculture — particularly total maximum daily loads (TMDLs).
Paul Thomas, EPA's Region 5 watershed coordinator, listed seven things the agency has learned:
TMDL programs have only been emphasized in the past decade. Point source pollution was easier to identify and deal with in the early days of environmental concern, so it got the attention. Non-point source pollution, which arises from diffused sources such as agriculture, is the leading cause of water pollution in our country, but it is much harder to quantify. Therefore, the government is now tackling it.
To this day, the public has a poor understanding of non-point source pollution issues, and almost no understanding of the comprehensive nature and size of the watersheds affected by that form of pollution.
Resource managers still have knowledge gaps that need closing. “For example, we have learned a lot about the effectiveness of best management practices in the last decade,” Thomas explained, noting that education on such issues is still lacking.
More resources are needed. “Farm bill funds can help, but we might not see measurable water quality improvements unless those dollars are focused on critical areas,” Thomas continued. “Working in partnership to leverage everyone's limited resources can improve and protect our environment in the most efficient manner.”
Watershed management has been under-attended until the past 10 years. That helps explain the lack of progress in cleaning up downstream pollution such as the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, a huge area of largely lifeless water that appears to be caused by a nutrient glut in the waters of the Mississippi River. Agricultural fertilizers contribute significantly to this problem, he said.
In the past, EPA didn't work well with agriculturists and industry sources. Those relationships are being improved.
Government programs lacked focus on measurable environmental results. Future programs will emphasize results that can be documented.
A Farmer Perspective
John Sellers, a farmer from Corydon, IA, also had a seven-point list.
He began with what he called “one of the greatest downfalls of all societies — human nature tends to fear change.”
Next, he explained, farmers have an inner drive to maximize yields. The industry reinforces that overriding goal and it is difficult to convince them to change their priorities.
Third, many farm organizations vilify environmental efforts, encouraging farmers to think the same way. This must change.
Fourth, conflicting scientific evidence can be confusing to farmers.
Fifth, government regulators many times are young and inexperienced, and that sometimes offends farmers.
As his sixth point, Sellers said a farmer generally perceives himself and his operation to be unique. Therefore, he considers himself to be outside the experience and scientific realm of whatever situation or regulation is at hand. This, too, must change, he said.
Finally, it is far too easy for farmers to blame others for their problems or pollution, Sellers said. Easy targets are city neighbors, their golf courses and those who write the regulations.
Nitrate Levels in Iowa
Susan Heathcote of the Iowa Environmental Council noted a U.S. Geological Survey documented the universally higher nitrate concentrations in Iowa surface water and groundwater relative to other areas of the country.
The higher nitrate levels are related to the intense agricultural land use where more than 90% of the land area is in agricultural production, she explained. To change that, or any other ecological imbalance, requires forethought, good science and cooperation, she added.
Heathcote listed four actions the Iowa Environmental Council believes will make significant improvement in water quality and other ecological measures:
Diversify the agricultural landscape.
Improve agricultural nutrient management.
Repair the landscape by restoring riparian and wetland areas.
Fund priorities and programs that reduce nutrient pollution.
Duane Hovorka of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation listed three areas his organization would like to see greater activity:
Conservation practices — buffer strips, buffer zones, no-till and ridge-till farming, where appropriate.
Alternate production systems — grass-based livestock and perennial crop systems, for example.
Alternate markets, such as organic and local/regional food systems that send financial signals to producers.
Hovorka cited four common mechanisms for change — regulations, conservation requirements tied to farm program payments, voluntary incentives and market signals (including direct subsidies). Recognizing the right tool for the right time and situation is the key, he added.
TMDLs Here to Stay
The nation will see increasing emphasis on TMDLs in watersheds, even though National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting doesn't require them.
EPA still tells the states they are to use TMDL models to control non-point pollution, so they will be used. Furthermore, the Clean Water Act mandated TMDLs be created, even though the act itself and the six or seven NPDES programs that add to the Clean Water Act lack implementation and enforcement programs for TMDLs, explained James Warchall, a Chicago-based environmental lawyer with Sidley, Austin, Brown & Wood.
Indeed, the complexity of the whole system makes Warchall question whether the U.S. will ever achieve a comprehensive program for water quality and pollution control.
It is very important for agricultural interests to take part in the TMDL process, added Fred Andes, an independent environmental lawyer based in Chicago. In recent years, EPA has been under pressure from Congress to get TMDLs into practice. This seems to be a higher priority than making them accurate, he added.
EPA designations of waters as fishable or swimmable, for instance, are often assumptions, he said. They may or may not be accurate designations. If they are inaccurate, the involvement of those affected could change the construct of the plans.
TMDLs might best be understood as a pie that must be shrunk. The owners of the various pieces of pie all fight over who gets the bigger piece. Therefore, if you have a stake in a watershed, get involved and do it early, Andes advised.
Mike McNeill, an Iowa crop consultant, said farmers are rushed for time and need things as simple as possible. Because of time constraints and the nature of their businesses, farmers usually aren't very good at keeping records, he said.
Competition among factions in the industry also hurts progress, he added. As an example, he told of his efforts to calculate the correct application rates of poultry litter for a client. His recommendation was based on soil tests and nutrient content tests of the litter — all scientifically sound.
McNeill learned that the farmer had applied the 2.5-ton rate of litter, in addition to a good dose of anhydrous ammonia. The total application was well above what he needed for his yield goals. His fertilizer supplier had told him “you can't depend on manure …”
McNeill explained, if you are to gain a producer's attention, you must convince him that he will get a good return on his investment.
Regulations and regulators must understand that, first and foremost, farming is a business. Regulatory programs must make economic sense if they expect farmers to buy into the programs, he concluded.