Few places on earth have been blessed with the abundance of productive,
fertile soil as
Consider, current high commodity prices are an incentive to
increase crop acreage. We saw a dramatic
increase in planted acres this Spring.
Moreover, growing global demand will provide the incentive to plant crops
not only more extensively, but more intensively. It is a simple fact that natural resources
are not evenly distributed around the globe.
Moreover, policy changes will be a catalyst to changing the
Another significant policy change is in the offing. For more than 25 years, traditional crop support programs have been coupled with a conservation compliance requirement ensuring protection of our soils. Congress, however, appears to be making federally subsidized crop insurance the primary financial risk management tool for farmers without the benefit of conservation compliance. This is a dangerous move away from a tried and true safeguard against excessive soil erosion.
Indeed, the USDA’s Economic Research has reported that
conservation compliance has reduced erosion on our most vulnerable soils by 40 percent
over the past two-and-a-half decades. To
put that in a visual context, the soil that has been saved is enough to cover
the National Mall from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the
Capitol, at twice the height of the
Other likely policy changes, such as the Senate farm bill’s proposal to decrease the size of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million to 25 acres, will also add to an increase in erosion rates. A smaller CRP means that more highly erodible or otherwise environmentally sensitive land will come back into production.
While it is true that technological advances enabling conservation tillage and no-till farming practices have dramatically reduced erosion over the past two decades, we may be on the cusp of a new dilemma: herbicide resistant weeds. Conservation tillage relies on herbicides rather than “bare earth” farming practices for weed control. Yet, at a recent National Academy of Sciences summit on herbicide-resistant weeds, it was widely predicted that farmers may soon have to revert to turning over more soil in order to manage weeds. Some cotton producers are coping with this reality right now.
The combination of more land in production, less protection for vulnerable acres, and increased tillage alone is a recipe for sharp increases in soil erosion. Imagine, however, what could happen if we also mix in sustained drought or extreme storms. With more soil exposed, the potential for extreme weather events to blow or wash a substantial amount of soil off-site is far greater than it has been for decades.
Weather we can’t control. Global demand for more food and different diets is a long term trend well in place. Over the next two generations, overall food production will have to increase by 70 percent, and it will have to come from those places on earth that can best meet this demand, including American farmland. These facts should strongly color our thinking about conservation programs and their funding in the farm bill. We literally can’t afford the widespread loss of our precious soils. As President Roosevelt warned, our nation is at risk.
Katherine R. Smith
Chief Economist and Vice President for Programs
American Farmland Trust www.farmland.org
Saving the Land that Sustains Us
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