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USDA Releases Assessment of Natural Resources in the United States

April 29, 2011

On Wednesday, April 27, USDA released a pre-publication copy of its long-awaited 2011 Resource Conservation Act Appraisal.  The appraisal, part of USDA’s implementation of the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA), assesses the status of soil, water, and related natural resources on non-Federal land and analyzes the effectiveness of current conservation policies and programs.

The RCA also directs USDA to develop a “national conservation plan” in response to its Appraisal.  The plan is due to Congress early next year and might also serve as a vehicle for Administration ideas for the conservation title of the 2012 Farm Bill.

According to USDA, the Appraisal “examines interrelated issues that have implications for U.S. agriculture and forestry: climate change, biofuels production, and the quality and availability of water.”

Among its key findings, the Appraisal includes new data on land-use, farm size and income, use of genetically modified crops, pesticide use, nutrient applications and loss, tillage, irrigation, soil erosion, wetlands, and changes in wildlife habitat.

Farm Size, Farm Income, and Landownership

The Appraisal finds that over the last 30 years, the number of very small and very large farms has increased while the number of mid-sized farms has declined.  The report notes, “to the extent that many,,, [smaller] operators are new farmers who have limited experience with USDA and with conservation (as was often stated in public listening sessions and focus groups conducted to inform this Appraisal), this trend implies an increasing demand for education, outreach, and technical assistance.”

The report notes that fewer farm operators now own the land that they operate, and that this trend away from ownership “could have implications for conservation to the extent that operators have less control over the land and less incentive to conserve natural resources.”

The organic sector has grown rapidly since the late 1990s, and while these farms tend to be smaller than conventional operations, “a much higher proportion of organic farm operators consider farming to be their primary occupation.”

Pesticides, Fertilizer, and Water

According to the Appraisal, more than 2,200 people who participated in the RCA Appraisal process identified water quality and quantity as their most pressing concern.

While most irrigated land in the United States is in the Western part of the country, it is growing most rapidly in the Eastern U.S., increasing by roughly 190,000 acres annually from 1997 and 2007.

The report notes that herbicide use has also increased since 1990 due to the increased use of herbicide-tolerant corn, soybean, and cotton varieties.  Critics of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) have noted elsewhere that the increased use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops has spurred the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds.

The RCA Appraisal repeatedly points out that by increasing the demand for corn, corn ethanol production has “shifted the balance between livestock and crop production,” “increased application of nitrogen,” and “increased the likelihood of soil erosion and runoff of nutrients and chemicals.”

Roughly 42 percent of wadeable streams were in poor condition in 2006.  According to the report, “the most common stressors were elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, riparian disturbance, and streambed sediments.”  The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) also found elevated nutrient levels in 90 percent of a sampling of streams and in 64 percent of a sampling of shallow aquifers.

The report notes that control of surface runoff may not control subsurface nitrogen flows.  It promotes comprehensive conservation planning that is “designed to meet the site-specific characteristics of the operation and the field.”  This whole-farm planning approach helps ensure that production practices and conservation practices interact to conserve natural resources and maintain productivity.

Drawing heavily on USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP) data, the appraisal explains that roughly half of the Nation’s cropland acres “have conservation treatment in place for controlling the loss of sediment and nutrients.”  According to the report, “Applying comprehensive conservation treatment to all under-treated acres could achieve[…] about 79 and 78 percent of potential nitrogen and phosphorus reductions, respectively.”

Two CEAP reports have thus far been published for specific watersheds, one on the Chesapeake Bay and the other on the Upper Mississippi River Basin.  Click here to read our assessment of the Mississippi River Basin report and here to read our assessment of the Chesapeake Bay report.

Soil Erosion and Organic Carbon

Between 1982 and 2007, total cropland erosion declined by 43 percent.  Much of this reduction was due to the creation of a number of Farm Bill conservation programs.  According to the report, “the bulk of the reductions occurred in the decade following implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), conservation compliance, and other provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985.  As a result of this Act, farmers retired much of the most highly erodible cropland and applied additional conservation practices on vulnerable cropland.”

The worst cropland erosion is concentrated in the Great Plains, the Corn Belt, the Great Lakes states, and the Palouse area or Washington State.  On the rangeland side, the report notes, “If rangelands, including much of the land currently protected by CRP in the Great Plains, are cultivated, the potential for wind erosion increases dramatically.”

In addition to measuring soil erosion, the Appraisal tracked soil organic carbon over a 20-year period.  According to the report, “nearly three-fourths of U.S. cropland is maintaining or increasing soil organic carbon levels.”  Twenty-seven percent of cropland lost soil organic carbon over this period.

Wetlands and Wildlife

Between 1997 and 2007, roughly 440,000 acres of wetlands were lost nation wide.  Most of this (60 percent) loss was due to urban and industrial development.  According to the report, “conversion of wetlands to agricultural uses during this period averaged over 6,500 acres per year, or about one-fourth the rate of conversion during the early 1990s.”  Agriculture accounted for roughly 15 percent of wetland losses.  Agriculture also accounted for 59 percent of wetland gains, which totaled 690,000 acres over this period.

As with wetlands, agriculture has both constructive and destructive potential when it comes to wildlife habitat.  The report notes that “agriculture is a source of endangerment for many wildlife species;” however, it also points out the conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) are protecting productive habitats across the country.

Climate Change

Using 2008 USDA data, the RCA report explains that agriculture is responsible for seven percent of all Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the United States.  Of that seven percent, 35 percent comes from cropland soils (N2O), 22 percent from enteric fermentation in livestock (CH4), 18 percent from managed grazing lands (CH4, N2O), 13 percent from energy use (CO2), 10 percent from managed livestock waste (CH4, N2O), and 2 percent from rice cropping and residue burning (CH4, N2O).


The RCA Appraisal is fairly critical of corn ethanol production and its impacts on the environment.  Nearly 100 percent of the nation’s ethanol is made from corn from the Midwest.  According to the report, “the share of U.S. corn production used for ethanol rose from 6 percent in 2000 to almost one-third [33 percent] in 2009.”

As noted above, this increase in corn acreage for corn ethanol production has resulted in the “cultivation of some land that was formerly idled or in grazing uses and reduced acres planted to other crops.”  This trend is projected to continue.  According to the report, “some of the largest corn acreage increases are projected for the Northern Plains (1.1 million acres), which relies heavily on irrigation from the Ogallala and adjacent aquifers.”

The increase in corn acreage for ethanol has also meant greater chemical and fertilizer use.  The report notes that a move toward perennial polycultures could do much to address this issue.  “Cellulosic feedstocks, and perennials in particular, typically require fewer inputs such as irrigation water, tillage, nutrients, or pesticides, than do row crops (GAO 2009),” the report states.  “Perennial polycultures that are genetically diverse may be more resistant to disease and pests, further reducing the need for pesticides by supporting natural pest suppression (by beneficial birds and insects).”

The report is also critical of corn stover removal for bioenergy production, noting, “overharvest could compromise soil stability and fertility and pose a potential water quality risk if soil erosion increases as a result of residue removal.”

On using CRP land for biofuel production, the report states, “If marginal and highly erodible lands (much of which are currently enrolled in the [CRP]) are brought into production, previously achieved soil quality benefits from long-term conserving cover may be lost as a result of tillage, as well as challenge other ecosystem benefits. In the Midwest and Great Plains, CRP has helped certain bird species recover; converting CRP land to bioenergy feedstock production may reverse that trend.”

In the next phase of the RCA process, NRCS will develop a national conservation plan in response to the findings outlined above.  We will continue to monitor the process as it unfolds and will report on any new developments.  The plan is due to Congress early next year.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

2 responses to “USDA Releases Assessment of Natural Resources in the United States”

  1. Tim Gieseke says:

    Thanks for the report summary. I agree that education, outreach and technical assistance all remain as major needs in the agricultural community. I do think the one overriding issue is the governance of the conservation delivery system. In the last twenty years we went from “addressing the erosion problem in the back 40 to the hypoxia problems in the lower 48.” We also went from having USDA as the significant stakeholder to embracing industry, processor, retailers and NGO as significant stakeholders. Shifting the center of gravity of the governance structure will be necessary to adequate address this extreme shift in conservation outcomes and stakeholders. No amount of money and government agents can meet these 21st century needs using 20th century governance policies.

  2. Mark Gorman says:

    Thanks for posting this important piece.