Overfarming in Iowa and other farm states has led to greater soil erosion than previous estimates suggested, according to a new study called “Losing Ground,” presented by Environmental Working Group (EWG). EWG is working to spread the word about unsustainable farming practices and to fight the federal policies that are destroying what was once precious, rich farmland.
Working alongside Iowa State University, EWG discovered that soil loss in Iowa was sometimes as much as 12 times that of the national average. Recent rains stripped the soil as much as 64 tons per acre and scientists are blaming overfarming for the problem. EWG used data from ISU scientists who tracked soil erosion after every storm. They corroborated the data with aerial surveys that reveal the destruction. 40 percent of Iowa fields lost more than the national average.
The findings disagree with federal findings from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which the EWG suggests were unreliable estimates. In April 2010, the NRCS estimated there were 5.2 tons lost per acre per year, which is just a touch above the sustainable rate. EWG’s data, on the other hand, shows a far more grim reality. They claim the difference comes because they’ve considered the gullies that act as “pipelines” during heavy rains, carrying tons of water and precious soil away from farmland in a flash.
The problem lies in the farmlands’ lack of balance and enormous magnitude. Fields are placed side by side, using up every bit of space to maximize output. Farmers are desperate to “get every bushel out of every acre” so they plant their fields “fence row to fence row,” snug up against what would otherwise be clean, fresh streams.
In their video, EWG describes Iowa farmland as marked by gullies that wash away topsoil and create “a direct pipeline delivering mud, toxic farm chemicals, and bacteria to our streams, rivers, and eventually our drinking water supplies.” Incorporating areas of grass between crops and streams would prevent everything from running together in this way, but since farmers want to harvest every bit possible, they fail to leave space for these necessary barriers.
Environmentalists do not blame farmers for the problem, though; they blame federal government who pays enticing subsidies to overproducing corn and soybean farmers. $51 billion in federal funding has been spent on boosting all-out production in states like Iowa. Farmers are given subsidies to grow as much corn and soybeans as possible. Sustainable farmers who allow space between their farmland and nearby streams are underfunded and struggle to stay financially stable.
The pesticides, fertilizers, and harmful chemicals in soil run-off end up hitting our drinking water sources and have already turned an area of the Gulf into a notorious dead zone. Soil erosion is not just threatening our land; it is harming our health and happiness. It “renders our water undrinkable, our beaches unfit to swim in, and has created an area in the Gulf so contaminated that aquatic life has to flee or die.”
The EWG has presented a number of recommendations to Congress to fix the crisis, hoping to save the land before it is too late. They suggest that old conservation plans, which had been in place prior to 1996, be reopened and revised. The plans should require treatment and prevention of gullies and erosion. Farms should have buffer zones at least 35 feet wide between crops and water sources. Non-native crop subsidies should be eliminated, and funding for USDA technical staff should be boosted so conservation practices and inspections are enforced.
Mass-scale farming might bring in big bucks for a few corn and soy farmers, but it does not help the majority of Americans or our nation’s farmlands. Health and well-being are at stake, and we can’t even measure how they will be affected if the government does not invest in efforts to curb soil erosion. A policy change is necessary, otherwise the fruitful land that once characterized the farm states of our country will become a myth.
Photo credit: ars.usda.gov