Published in the Des Moines Register Sunday June 25, 2023
Our farmers feed the country and are among the most productive in the world. However, our farm policy is not living up to its potential to help solve some of our most serious challenges — water pollution, declining public health and climate change.
This year, Congress must pass a better farm bill. The good news is we already have proven practices that can help reduce pollution while improving health and climate resiliency.
Agriculture is the top source of polluted runoff that washes pesticides, excess nutrients and manure into streams, which affects the lakes and groundwater that supply our drinking water.
Synthetic nitrogen used in agriculture flows off land and into waterways, where it forms nitrate that eventually enters our drinking water. Prolonged exposure to nitrate, even at levels that are lower than federal limits, increases the risk of colorectal cancer, thyroid disease and birth defects like spina bifida. Excess nitrogen also triggers toxic algae blooms and red tides, which threaten aquatic life as well as human health and outdoor recreation.
Removing nitrate from public water supplies is expensive. Right here in Iowa, it costs the Des Moines Water Works about $10,000 per day to operate a special nitrate removal facility. Those costs are ultimately borne by its customers. And across the U.S., the 43 million Americans who drink water from private wells are at risk since state agencies don’t test or treat that water.
A better farm bill would create more incentives to plant cover crops, create buffers between fields and streams, and employ other tactics that reduce polluted runoff.
Conventional farming exacerbates erosion of the most precious of our natural resources — topsoil. We’re losing topsoil at a rate that is about 10 times faster than it can be replaced.
Traditional farming also depletes natural soil nutrients, which creates a damaging cycle where more chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used to sustain yields.
But healthy soils can produce food that is rich in minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, which can improve human health and help reduce chronic inflammation — a factor in many serious conditions including heart disease and cancers.
So a better farm bill must make soil health the centerpiece of agriculture policy. We need to expand programs that promote incentives on farmlands for wise tilling practices and crop rotation and diversity.
Agricultural lands also offer one tool in the all- of-the-above effort required to address the climate crisis. About 4.5 acres of healthy cropland sequester the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of an average car in one year.
A better farm bill could help keep more carbon out of the atmosphere by focusing on healthy soil.
When it was first enacted in the 1930s, the farm bill promised to make affordable food available while reducing soil erosion and providing financial stability for farmers.
That promise can still work today, but time is running out.
Vicki Arnold, national president of the Izaak Walton League of America, lives in Sherrill, Iowa. The League advocates for policies that protect the nation’s woods, waters and wildlife.
Michael Reinemer, Director of Communications, email@example.com, 301-548-0105 ext. 220