Editorial: Farm bill boosts conservation


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Among the myriad programs extended and altered by the recently passed farm bill are a number of conservation measures intended to advance the noble goals of fertile soil, clean water, and alternative-energy development in the agricultural sector.

There are substantial conservation gains in the new bill, which is promising for Iowa, but the overall decline in conservation funding is concerning as well, considering the sheer scale of the environmental problems facing our state.

The biggest environmental victory in the bill is the so-called “conservation compliance” policy that will require farmers to participate in certain conservation practices in order to benefit from crop subsidies. Environmental activists had sought such a program for years. It is intended to coax more farmers into adopting environmentally friendly farming techniques.

In Iowa and five other states, a “Sodsaver” provision will reduce the incentives for farmers to convert grassland to farmland, a plan intended to protect native grasslands.

The bill also increases funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is intended to provide financial assistance to farmers looking to implement conservation programs.

Unfortunately, the new farm bill has also reduced total funding levels for conservation programs at a time when the environmental concerns surround farming in Iowa, particularly with respect to water quality, are growing. The new bill cuts about $6 billion from conservation efforts over the next decade, the first such cut in a farm bill in nearly three decades. The problems facing Iowa’s waterways, severe as they are, may require not only restructuring current programs but also a greater investment in conservation.

Consider the extent of the environmental degradation of Iowa’s water. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group shows that from 2008 to 2011, water quality was rated “poor” or “very poor” in 60 percent of the 98 stream segments monitored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. During the most recent three-year period studied, none of the sites had “excellent” water quality, and only one was rated “good.”

The heavy pollution of Iowa’s waterways is due in large part to farm runoff. Earlier this week, an investigation published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in On Earth magazine, showed that the state’s pork industry (the largest in the country) produces more than 5 billion gallons of pig manure every year in Iowa factory farms, much of which is used as fertilizer that eventually winds up in the state’s water.

As On Earth reported, “mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public-health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007.”

The two most common water pollutants in Iowa — nitrogen and phosphorous — come primarily from excess fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides from agricultural lands, bacteria and nutrients from livestock, and salt from irrigation practices.

Clearly, Iowa’s water has been damaged severely by agriculture. New programs in the farm bill that incentivize conservation are welcome, of course, but a stronger set of policies and increased funding will likely be needed to undertake the massive task of reversing environmental degradation in Iowa.

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