Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy Will Not Work

(The author is an organic farmer with a Phd in soil science. He was the Democratic nominee for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2010. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

We have been hearing a lot of hype from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey about how the voluntary approach to changing agricultural practices to improve water quality — as proposed in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) — will be effective.  However, my experience in over 25 years of work on water quality tells me that this is very naive thinking at best, and deceptive to the public at worst.  Below are the comments on the NRS that I submitted a few days ago.

The science assessment of nonpoint source practices in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) is comprehensive.  However, it reveals that major changes in Iowa’s agricultural practices will be required to achieve the goals of the NRS.  What is lacking in the NRS is a plausible strategy for how farmers will become motivated to make those changes.

The practices listed in the NRS are not new.  Farmers have had the opportunity to adopt them for years, but for the most part they have not.  The reason they haven’t is that the practices cost money and/or time to implement.  Farmers, individually, have no economic motivation to adopt them, and the public cannot afford to pay for them.

In 2012 USDA provided Iowa landowners $33 million in conservation funding, the latest of decades of annual conservation funding that has not shown real gains in water quality.  To the contrary, the Hypoxia Zone in the Gulf of Mexico has grown larger over the decades of state and federal funding of water quality programs and projects.  Moreover, anyone driving around Iowa in recent years has seen firsthand that a lot of new tile drainage has been installed across Iowa, which will likely increase the loss of nitrogen to the Gulf faster than water quality projects can make gains.  The proposed $2.4 million state allocation to implement the NRS may sound like a lot to legislators and the public, but it is a drop in the bucket of funding that would be required if the public were to fund the NRS to a level that would have a chance of achieving its goals.

A water quality strategy that could work would be to require every farm to develop and implement a farm conservation plan which would include a combination of practices from the science assessment of the NRS, which together would meet the water quality goals for that farm, and which on the aggregate would meet the water quality goals for the State of Iowa.  Motivation for farmers to develop and implement their conservation plans could be through coupling conservation plans to federal subsidy programs (obviously the state cannot control that) or through direct regulatory requirements at the state or federal level.

The voluntary strategy put forth in the NRS simply defies the odds of working.  As one ISU scientist — who contributed to the science assessment of the NRS – recently told me, “There is no scientific evidence that the NRS strategy will work.”

At best, the proposed voluntary approach espoused in the NRS represents a naïve belief that farmers will now suddenly make major changes in their farming practices – which will cost them money – in the face of decades of evidence to the contrary.  At worst, the NRS strategy could be seen to be a calculated ploy to try to buy another five years of business-as-usual agriculture under the guise of a new strategy. 

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  • better than business as usual

    Business as usual with millions more dollars allocated to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in exchange for pretending to address the problem.

  • off-topic

    Congratulations on your recent appointment to the National Organic Standards Board.  

  • Even if people don't care about the Gulf of Mexico

    …they should care about the water flowing through their own communities, and whether recreational users will be attracted to rivers full of brown and green gunk that smells funny in warm weather.  

    When businesses are deciding whether to locate in a place like Charles City, with a river flowing through the middle of town, they know that the Charles City kayak course is an amenity that helps attract a workforce.  So are the other river-front restaurants and walking trails.  Collectively, these amenities help make the community appealing, along with good schools and other public institutions. You only have to look at cities that have cleaned up and cared for their rivers, like Portland and San Antonio, to see how capitalizing on natural assets can build the business community.

    Meanwhile, back in rural Iowa:

    According to a 2012 report by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, recreation on 73 Iowa river segments supported more than 6,350 jobs annually, with $824 million in sales and $130 million of personal income.

    That’s not chump change.  Farmers are not the only ones with a stake in this issue, but they are the only stakeholders that Northey cares about.

    • absolutely

      and for those reasons, it’s disappointing that the business community hasn’t done more to push for cleaner water in Iowa. Instead they close ranks against any new government regulations.