CORVALLIS, Ore. – Case studies of Midwest agricultural land use practices suggest that area residents would embrace more environmental protection and often care deeply about protecting their land, but in reality are being pushed by economic forces and government policies toward a future of high commodity production, declining biodiversity, soil degradation and heavy pollution.
In a new book titled “From the Corn Belt to the Gulf,” authors from several universities, private industry and government agencies outline a range of both concerns and opportunities facing one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, and the broader implications that management actions there have for ecosystems elsewhere.
They conclude that even though current land use systems are not what people want or prefer on many levels, they are being driven by high crop prices, the demand for corn-based ethanol, and a policy emphasis on price supports for production, rather than environmental protection. Being lost in the equation are native biodiversity, clean streams, stable soils and natural resilience.
The findings are based on years of work with geographic information systems, farmer interviews, and widespread input from residents in two central Iowa watersheds, one near Ames and the other around Grinnell. The lands are similar to vast areas of the Midwest that produce corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle.
“Part of what’s most interesting is that the use of these lands can change quickly and dramatically based on government policies,” said Mary Santelmann, director of the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University, and co-editor of the new book.
“Many people look at these landscapes, what they are now, and think that’s just the way it has to be,” Santelmann said. “But that really isn’t true. We are getting what we ask for as a society, and even the people who live there are quick to admit that often is not what they really want.”
In their analysis and public meetings, researchers considered what the landscapes might look for if they were managed for three “alternative agricultural futures” – one that emphasized water quality, one that emphasized agricultural commodity production, and one that emphasized native biodiversity. Almost without exception, Santelmann said, area residents said they preferred landscapes managed more for natural resource protection and biodiversity – but that they actually were moving toward maximizing agricultural production.
Because of that, the authors concluded, massive amounts of fertile topsoils and nitrate pollution flow into the Gulf of Mexico, where a huge and growing “dead zone” chokes the life out of shrimp and other fisheries. One Iowa watershed that was studied is 83 percent planted in corn and soybeans, and rising, while water in local streams is already undrinkable due to nitrate pollution. In another watershed, nitrate concentrations are lower, but extraordinary sediment loads fill streams following rainstorms.
“Many of the dollars that are being made through higher corn prices in the Midwest come with a cost, such as environmental degradation and increased risk to the valuable fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico,” Santelmann said. “If you look at this issue in broader, national terms, the economic and ecological issues are much more complex.”
The problems are not hopeless, the authors point out. Even a future with a strong focus on commodity production could be improved with wider use of “best management” farming practices, such as conservation tillage, riparian buffer zones and grass filter strips.
More significant water quality improvements – such as the type that might produce a 30 to 50 percent decline in nutrient exports and reduce Gulf of Mexico problems – would take more aggressive actions. This could include nutrient detention wetlands, less use of fertilizer, and more crops that provide perennial cover, such as oats, alfalfa or even native plants grown for pasture grazing by livestock.
A move towards cellulosic ethanol – fuels based on other vegetation or grasses instead of grain crops – might also provide some relief, researchers say.
“We talked to many Midwesterners about changes such as these, and they were receptive,” Santelmann said. “Many of them are using conservation practices already, and others could move in that direction if they were given more encouragement or support. But individual farmers often feel powerless to challenge the economic realities on their own. It may not be our farmers who are the problem, but our policies.”
Other nations, the researchers said, have moved towards more funding for environmental initiatives, as opposed to price support subsidies that tend to mandate maximum crop production.
The issues take on added importance, the scientists said, due to the heavy planting of very few crop species, while native plant and animal biodiversity disappears. With the aspect of global climate change, biodiversity is often the first and best protection against uncertainties and an evolving ecosystem.
The alternative futures study was funded by the National Science Foundation/ Environmental Protection Agency Partnership for Environmental Research. More than 50 scientists from several universities conducted the research that provided the science base for the Mississippi River Basin Integrated Assessment. The assessment itself was constructed by scientists from eight federal agencies, including NOAA, EPA, and the U.S. Geological Survey, many of whom were also involved with the interagency, intergovernmental, and intertribal Task Force on Hypoxia in the Gulf.
“In some ways, these are common sense results that should not be all that surprising,” Santelmann said. “But one thing we have to get past is the sense that our future is already determined, that there’s nothing we can do about it. These lands will respond rapidly to different management and different policies. It’s up to us to determine what type of future we want.”