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EWG Report Calls Soil Erosion “Far Worse than Official Estimates”

April 13, 2011


On Wednesday, April 13, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a new report on soil erosion in Iowa.  The report, entitled Loosing Ground, states that soil in Iowa and other Corn Belt states is “being swept away at rates many times higher than official estimates.”  The findings are based in part on data from aerial surveys and Iowa State University (ISU).

According to the report, the National Resources Inventory (NRI) data that are typically used by USDA suggest that erosion rates in Iowa averaged 5.2 tons per acre per year, and 3.9 across the entire Corn Belt in 2007.  These rates are considered acceptable according to the “sustainable” rate of erosion of five tons per acre per year — the amount of soil loss per year the land can tolerate before it loses its ability to sustain a healthy crop.

However, EWG and ISU data show far worse erosion and runoff figures for the state, reinforcing long-existing doubts about the current acceptable definition of  “sustainable” levels of erosion.  According to the report, “the data indicate that farmland in 440 Iowa townships encompassing more than 10 million acres eroded faster in 2007 than the ‘sustainable’ rate.  In 220 townships totaling 6 million acres, the rate of soil loss was twice the ‘sustainable’ level.”

Erosion in farmlands is exacerbated by runoff, which washes away soils, fertilizers, pesticides and manure, eventually discharging them into the Mississippi River.  The runoff has led to the development of a Dead Zone — a zone of depleted oxygen that forms each year and suffocates marine life — in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to EWG, changing weather patters, federal policies that incentivize farmers to plant crops fence row to fence row, and inadequate enforcement of conservation compliance plans are the main drivers of the current rising trend of erosion and runoff in the region.  As summarized in the document, “Between 1997 and 2009, the government paid Iowa farmers $2.76 billion to put conservation practices in place.  It paid out six times as much — $16.8 billion — in income, production and insurance subsidies that encouraged maximum-intensity planting, not conservation.  Across the Corn Belt, the gap was even greater — $7.0 billion for conservation and $51.2 billion for income, production and insurance subsidies.”

The report concludes with a set of recommendation for USDA, including enforcement of soil conservation practices, increase in annual compliance inspections, and greater use of graduated penalties.

Other recommendations include:

  • Reopen and revise all the legacy conservation compliance soil conservation plans approved and applied before July 3, 1996, requiring that they reduce erosion to a truly “sustainable” level and prevent ephemeral gully erosion on highly erodible cropland.
  • Require treatment and/or prevention of ephemeral gully erosion on all agricultural land — not just highly erodible land — owned by producers or landlords receiving income, production, insurance or conservation subsidies.
  • Require vegetative buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between row crops and all lakes, rivers and smaller streams.
  • Require all producers participating in existing or new crop and revenue insurance programs to meet conservation compliance standards.
  • Ensure that farmers who convert native prairie or rangeland to row crops are not eligible to receive income, production, insurance or conservation subsidies on those acres.
  • Adequately fund the USDA technical staff — out of funds for programs covered by compliance provisions — so it can plan and implement the required conservation practices and conduct annual inspections to certify that those practices are in place.

Access the full version of the Loosing Ground Report here.

Related New York Times article: High Prices Sow Seeds of Erosion.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment


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