There is an African proverb that speaks to our modern agricultural dilemma. It is said that “dirty water cannot be washed.” Yet we continue to pollute our waters with our agricultural practices in the heartland of the continent. Corn and soy are planted in vast expanses, modified to withstand extreme applications of pesticides and herbicides. They are also reliant on vast devotions of synthetic fertilizers.
All these agricultural inputs end up in our waterways and drinking water, harming our health and the environment. There is no easy method to “wash away” these pollutants so pervasive in our waters.
Is it our heartland or an industrial corn-belt?
I grew up in the heartland and know what that looks like. It’s a never ending horizon of rolling cornfields quilted with soybean fields. These days the landscape looks much different than it did 50 years ago. Nothing grows in the ditches or around the streambeds; glyphosate-round-up has performed its dark magic.
This heartland has been named the corn-belt where the USDA estimates that this year’s corn production will be the third highest production on record, a full 83.5 million acres planted in corn. Record-high soybean production will engulf 88.7 million acres of the corn-belt.
By-products from our overproduction of corn and soy are killing our streams, rivers, gulfs and bays
I’ve already lamented on the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico which is caused by excessive nitrogen run-off. This nitrogen comes from fertilizing those great expanses of corn and soy causing eutrophication, which is a just fancy word for algae blooms and the depletion of oxygen that kills healthy marine life.
A recent study in Science explains that this kind of excessive nutrient enrichment threatens water resources across the globe. The study indicates that as the climate changes and precipitation increases, we will witness a substantial increase of river nitrogen loading unless we change our “business-as-usual” scenario. According to the study, “The impacts, driven by projected increases in both total and extreme precipitation, will be especially strong for the Northeast and the corn-belt of the United States.”
You only have to read EWG’s “State of American Drinking Water” to get a taste of the foulness afoot. In it, they conclude that “When most Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, developmental defects, fertility problems or hormone disruption.”
In my home state of Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works battles daily to keep nitrate levels from uncontrolled farm pollution just below the EPA legal limit in local drinking water.
In Topeka, Kansas they found at least four pesticides used on corn fields, including atrazine, which can turn male frogs into females after exposure to levels commonly found in drinking water throughout the corn-belt.
Not only do the many farmers (and my relatives) have to drink the stuff, they don’t get paid very well for growing the massive bushels per acre. The economics of our grain over production has resulted in prolonged periods of low prices punctuated by brief periods of higher prices. For the most part, policies and subsidies in the Farm Bill have created these false economies resulting in an imbalance of how much corn and soy we produce and an unsustainable way in which we grow it.
New crop management approaches are needed
The authors of a recent study in PNSA concluded that if we are going to solve our water issues, we need to unbuckle the way we manage our corn-belt. There are many ways we can reduce levels of both nitrogen and phosphorus not just by altering the fertilizer application rates, but also by using cover crops and improving overall soil management all the while pursuing alternatives to corn-based biofuels.
Sounds a lot like organic farming methods
The Organic Center highlighted a study published in Sustainable Agriculture Research that found organic farming methods can be used to reduce water pollution in U.S waterways. The researchers of this three-year study concluded “… that organic farming practices, such as the application of composted animal manure and the use of forage legumes and green manures with extended cropping rotations, can improve water quality in Midwestern subsurface-drained landscapes.”
Meanwhile, the EPA wishes to rescind the protections in the Waters of the U.S. Regulation (WOTUS)
The EPA and the Department of the Army are proposing a rule to rescind the Clean Water Rule and redefine the definition of “waters of the United States.” The proposed rule, published in the Federal Register (FR) on July 27, 2017, will be open for public comment until September 27, 2017.
Before you make your public comment, I leave you with one last quote from Luna Leopold, a brilliant 20th-century hydrologist who said, “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.”
His words are most relevant today as we consider the ramifications of traditional conventional agriculture on our waterways, our health and our future.