The U.S. economy and the livelihood of citizens depend on soil, water, air, plants, and animals, and natural and managed ecosystems as fundamental resources. Agricultural production, by its very nature, has pervasive effects on all these resources. Agricultural production takes place within farming systems. Those systems are defined by the pattern and sequence of crops; the management decisions regarding the inputs and production practices used; the management skills, education, and objectives of the producer; the quality of the soil and water; and the nature of the landscape and the ecosystems within which production takes place. This report focuses on the opportunities to manage farming systems in ways that protect two of these fundamental resources—soil and water.
The committee's deliberations were based on three basic concepts of soil and water resource management: (1) the fundamental importance of the soil and of the links between soil quality and water pollution, (2) the importance of preventing rather than mitigating water pollution, and (3) the need to sustain profitable and productive farming systems to provide the food and fiber society demands.
Protecting soil quality, like protecting air and water quality, should be a fundamental goal of national environmental policy.
The quality of a soil depends on attributes such as the soil's texture,
depth, permeability, biological activity, capacity to store water and nutrients, and the amount of organic matter contained in the soil. Soils are living, dynamic systems that are the interface between agriculture and the environment. High-quality soils promote the growth of crops and make farming systems more productive. High-quality soils also prevent water pollution by resisting erosion, absorbing and partitioning rainfall, and degrading or immobilizing agricultural chemicals, wastes, or other potential pollutants. The quality of some U.S. soils, however, is degenerating because of erosion, compaction, salinization, loss of biological activity, and other factors. The full extent of soil degradation in the United States is unknown, but current estimates of damage from erosion understate the true extent of soil degradation.
The 1990 Clean Air Act (PL 101-549) and the Clean Water Act (PL 100-104) give national recognition to the fundamental importance of air and water resources. Soil resources are equally important components of environmental quality, and national policies to protect soil resources
should be based on the fundamental functions that soils perform in natural and agroecosystems.
Preventing surface water and groundwater pollution by reducing the sources of contamination by nutrients, pesticides, sediments, salts, and trace elements should be the goal of national policies.
Treatment of drinking water to remove nitrates and pesticides is expensive and in some cases ineffective. The disruption of aquatic ecosystems caused by excessive nutrients, pesticides, sediments, salts, and trace elements may be difficult to reverse at a reasonable cost or in a reasonable length of time. Preventing pollution by changing farming practices, rather than treating problems after they have occurred, should be the primary approach to solving water pollution problems caused by farming practices.
The goal of pollution prevention should be to reduce the total mass of nutrients, pesticides, salts, and trace elements that are lost to the environment. Solutions that reduce loadings of one pollutant by increasing the loadings of a different pollutant or that reduce loadings to surface water by increasing loadings to groundwater are not likely to be acceptable or effective in the long-term.
Profitability and Productivity
National policies should take advantage of opportunities to protect soil and water quality while sustaining profitable production of food and fiber.
Policymakers face a dilemma. Society needs and wants the food and fiber that agriculture produces. Producing that food and fiber inescapably alters the environment, and some effect on soil and water quality is inevitable. Unfortunately, comprehensive national data on soil degradation and water pollution caused by farming practices are often lacking. Available data are sufficient to cause concern but often not sufficient to confidently determine priorities.
Given this dilemma, national policy should, in the short-term, take advantage of opportunities to refine the management of farming systems in ways that protect soil and water with minimal or even positive effects on profitability. The committee found a diverse set of technologies and management methods that promise to improve soil and water quality and, at the same time, maintain or even enhance profit. The magnitude and nature of these opportunities, however, vary from region to region, crop to crop, and farm enterprise to farm enterprise.
Preventing soil degradation and water pollution in the present may deter forcing solutions that impose serious costs on producers in the future. Time, however, may run out. In some regions, soil degradation and water pollution may already be serious enough that solutions will entail economic losses to the agricultural sector. Concerted action now is needed to prevent the list of such regions from getting longer.
The committee defined four broad opportunities that hold the most promise of preventing soil degradation and water pollution while sustaining a profitable agricultural sector.
National policy should seek to (1) conserve and enhance soil quality as a fundamental first step to environmental improvement; (2) increase nutrient, pesticide, and irrigation use efficiencies in farming systems; (3) increase the resistance of farming systems to erosion and runoff; and (4) make greater use of field and landscape buffer zones.
These four approaches are interrelated. Emphasis on one objective to the exclusion of the others may exacerbate one environmental problem while solving another. Reducing runoff, for example, without improving nutrient management may reduce the amount of nutrients reaching surface water but increase the amount leaching to groundwater. The balance of emphasis between objectives may necessarily change from one region to another to best address local conditions. For example, in some cases, shifting emphasis to creating buffer zones, as the cost of refining input management increases, may be the least expensive way for producers and taxpayers to prevent pollution. Ultimately, the decision to emphasize one approach over another is, at least implicitly, a political and social judgment on the importance of protecting particular soils or water bodies (see Chapter 2).
Enhancing Soil Quality
National policies to protect soil resources are too narrowly focused on (1) controlling erosion and (2) conserving soil productivity. Erosion is not the only, and in some cases not the most important, threat to soil quality. Salinization and compaction are important and often irreversible processes of soil degradation. More important, erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, and loss of biological activity interact to accelerate soil degradation. Comprehensive policies that address all processes of soil degradation are needed.
Soil productivity is not the only, and in some regions may not be the most important, reason to protect soil resources. Soil and water quality are inherently linked. Preventing water pollution by nutrients, pesticides, salts, sediments, or other pollutants will be difficult and more expensive if soil degradation is not controlled. Protecting soil quality alone, however, will not prevent water pollution unless other elements of the farming system are addressed (see Chapter 5).
Efficient Use of Inputs
Agricultural production inevitably generates a certain mass of residual products including nutrients, sediments, pesticides, salts, and trace elements that can become pollutants. The emphasis of traditional conservation programs has been to prevent pollutants from leaving the farming system by reducing erosion and runoff. New programs are needed that reduce the amount of potential pollutants produced as a by-product of farming by improving the way nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water are used.
Increasing the efficiency of nutrient, pesticide, and irrigation water use reduces the total residual mass of nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticides, salts, and trace elements that can become pollutants. In some cases, efficiency can be achieved by using fewer nutrients or pesticides or both or less irrigation water to produce the same yield; in other cases, efficiency can be achieved by increasing the yield while using the same mass of inputs. Many technologies and management methods are already available that promise to dramatically increase the efficiency of nutrient, pesticide, and irrigation water use; but they need to be more widely implemented. In many cases, the cost of achieving greater efficiency in input use is offset by reduced costs of production. In those regions and farming systems where these economic incentives are significant, substantial and rapid progress toward preventing water quality problems may be possible. (See Chapters 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11 for discussions of nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticide, irrigation, and manure management.)
Resisting Erosion and Runoff
Conservation tillage and residue management systems are well understood and effective means of reducing erosion and runoff. A great diversity of tillage and residue management systems is available to producers. Many of these systems result in dramatic decreases in erosion and runoff from farming systems and from agricultural watersheds. The major opportunity to improve the effectiveness of these systems is to increase their use on lands that are most vulnerable to soil quality degradation or that most contribute to water pollution. In some regions the applicability of these systems may be limited, however, because of unfavorable physical or economic factors.
Much of the damage from erosion and runoff can occur during storms that occur infrequently. Incorporating the probability of storm events into the design of farming systems should help identify approaches that combine residue management with changes in cropping systems to provide more protection to the soil during periods when storms are likely. Current computer simulation capacities coupled with available climatic data should be used to identify opportunities to design farming systems that can resist damage from storm events of various duration and intensities.
Field and Landscape Buffer Zones
Field-by-field efforts to conserve soil quality, improve input use efficiency, and increase resistance to erosion and runoff will not be adequate to protect soil and water quality in regions where overland and subsurface movements of nutrients, pesticides, salts, and sediment are pervasive. Buffer zones to intercept or immobilize pollutants and reduce the amount
and energy of runoff need to be created. Existing buffer zones need to be protected in such regions to prevent soil degradation and water pollution. New and existing buffer zones need to be connected across fields and farm boundaries. Buffer zones can include natural riparian corridor vegetation (vegetation along waterways); simple, but strategically placed, grass strips; or sophisticated artificial wetlands. Federal, state, and local government programs to protect existing riparian vegetation, whether bordering major streams or small tributaries, lakes, or wetlands, should be promoted. The creation or protection of field or landscape buffer zones, however, should augment efforts to improve farming systems. They should not be substitutes for such efforts. (See Chapter 12 for a discussion of buffer zones.)
IMPLEMENTING THE AGENDA
A range of technical opportunities to improve the management of farming systems exist. In many cases, better use of available technologies, understanding, and information would result in immediate gains in preventing soil degradation and water pollution; many producers have already made substantial improvements in their farming systems. There are, however, important obstacles to achieving more widespread use of the new technologies and management methods needed to prevent soil degradation and water pollution. Substantial changes must occur in the way current programs are implemented before it will be possible to take advantage of the technical opportunities to improve farming systems (see Chapter 3).
Problem Areas, Problem Farms
The committee strongly emphasizes the importance of targeting—that is, attempting to direct technical assistance, educational effort, financial resources, or regulations at those regions where soil degradation and water pollution are most severe. It is also important to target those farm enterprises that cause a disproportionate amount of soil and water quality problems. The inability or unwillingness to target policies, whether voluntary or nonvoluntary, at problem areas and problem farms is a major obstacle to preventing soil degradation and water pollution.
The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Congress
should undertake a coordinated effort to identify regions or watersheds that should be highest priority for federal, state, and local programs to improve soil and water quality.
Federal, state, and local governments have, at least implicitly, identified priority areas for various soil and water quality problems and for various programs to improve soil and water quality. These priority areas, however, have been established by different agencies, for different purposes, and on different measures of soil or water quality. The problem areas that have already been identified in current programs or legislation need to be categorized to create a clear set of national priorities that can be used by USDA, EPA, and Congress to direct programs and resources to areas consistently defined as problem areas.
Soil and water quality programs should be targeted at problem farms that, because of their location, production practices, or management, have greater potential to cause soil degradation or water pollution.
Although systematic data on production practices, input use, and management systems are scarce, available data indicate that some farm enterprises cause more soil and water problems than others. Targeting programs, whether voluntary or nonvoluntary, at problem farms is an opportunity to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of soil and water quality programs. The Secretary of USDA and the Administrator of the EPA should initiate a multiagency effort to assemble available data on production practices and enterprise characteristics to identify problem farms within problem areas.
Encouraging or requiring the adoption of single-objective best-management practices is not a sufficient basis for soil and water quality programs at the farm level. Inherent links exist among the components of a farming system and the larger landscape. Adoption of a tillage system that increases soil cover to reduce erosion, for example, may require changes in the methods, timing, and amounts of nutrients and pesticides applied. Failure to recognize and manage these links increases the cost, slows the rate of adoption, and decreases the effectiveness of new technologies or management methods.
The development and implementation of approved integrated farming system plans should be the basis for delivery of education and technical assistance,
should be the condition under which producers become eligible for financial assistance, and should be the basis for determining whether producers are complying with soil and water quality programs.
Integrated farming system plans should become the basis of federal, state, and local soil and water quality programs. Receipt of cost-sharing or other financial assistance should depend on developing and implementing integrated farming system plans, rather than on implementing single-objective best-management practices. In the long-term, implementation of an integrated farming system plan should be required of producers, regardless of their participation in federal farm programs, in regions where soil degradation and water pollution caused by farming practices are severe.
Better Tools and Information
Substantial progress can be made toward improving the management of farming systems using available technology and information. Much greater progress could be made if producers had better tools and information to refine the management of their farming systems.
Better Management Tools
Developing and implementing cost-effective diagnostic and monitoring methods to refine the management of soils, nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water should be a high priority of USDA and EPA research and technology transfer programs.
Progress has been made in developing technologies to match farming practices to variations in soil quality, to monitor and assess the nutrient and water status of crop plants, and to monitor and determine economic levels of pest problems. It is important to accelerate the development of the diagnostic and monitoring tools producers need to refine their management of soil, nutrients, pest control, and irrigation water. The degree to which the management of farming systems can be improved will be determined, in large part, by the management tools available to producers and how well they are used.
Keeping and using records of production practices, crop and livestock yields, and other elements of the farm management system should be a fundamental component of programs to improve the management of farming systems.
The systems established to manage the flow and analysis of information are as important as the specific production practices specified in the
plan. Policies that encourage or mandate the collection and use of information by the producer may prove more effective than encouraging or mandating the use of specific farming practices. The information needed to manage a farm operation to maximize profit, if properly organized, complements the information needed to improve soil and water quality. The collection and synthesis of this information can point out ways to improve both profitability and soil and water quality. Record keeping should be mandatory when integrated farming system plans are the basis for granting financial assistance. It should also be mandatory when integrated plans are the basis for ensuring compliance with soil or water quality programs.
New Cropping Systems
Research and development of economically viable cropping systems that incorporate cover crops, multiple crops, and other innovations should be accelerated to meet long-term soil and water quality goals.
Innovative cropping systems use cover crops, companion crops, strip-cropping, reduced reliance on fallow, or other changes in the timing or sequence of crops. Such systems can be designed to increase soil cover; reduce insect, disease, and weed problems; utilize excess nutrients; and control runoff and leaching from farming systems. These innovations in cropping systems may prove to be the most effective way to protect soil and water quality while sustaining profitable food and fiber production. Guiding the research to develop new cropping systems requires a long-term perspective and a vigorous imagination. Existing cropping systems have little resemblance to the systems common 75 years ago. It is reasonable to expect that future systems will be equally different from current systems.
Criteria and Standards
USDA and EPA should initiate an integrated research effort to develop quantifiable standards that can be used to evaluate the management of farming systems.
Current understanding of the effect of farming systems on soil and water quality is generally sufficient to identify the best available production practices or management systems; it is not, however, sufficient for making quantitative estimates of how much soil and water quality will improve as a result of the use of alternative practices or management methods. In the short-term, the Secretary of USDA and the Administrator of EPA should convene an interagency task force to develop
standards that can be used to implement and evaluate integrated farming system plans. Clear standards will increase the confidence that soil and water quality will be improved and provide a basis for determining whether plans are being adequately implemented. In the long-term, however, the inability to provide more quantitative predictions of the effect of changes in farming systems on soil and water quality will be a serious constraint to efforts to meet soil and water quality goals. There is an urgent need to develop the scientific capacity to provide producers, policymakers, and program managers with more
rigorous methods to determine how much improvement in the management of farming systems is needed to meet specific soil and water quality goals.
INFLUENCING PRODUCERS' DECISIONS
Targeting programs at problem areas and farms, basing programs on a farming system rather than a best-management practice approach, and filling gaps in technology and information are all important steps toward preventing soil degradation and water pollution. Federal, state, and local programs could be made much more effective if these three steps were taken. Ultimately it is the millions of management decisions producer's make each year that determine the effect of farming systems on soil and water quality. The role of national policy should be to create incentives that influence the information and technologies that producers use to manage their farming systems.
Many factors influence those choices including market prices for inputs and products, the cost of new technologies, the labor and capital available to the producer, agricultural policy, environmental regulations, and the goals of the individual producer or enterprise. The inadequacy of empirical data and predictive models of producer behavior and the diversity of enterprises that make up the agricultural sector make it difficult to pinpoint the precise effect of alternative policies on the behavior of producers. General understanding of the factors that influence producers' decisions can guide the development of national policies to induce producers to change their farming systems.
Barriers Imposed by Price and Supply Control
Federal agricultural price support and supply control programs should be reformed to increase the flexibility participants have to diversify their cropping systems.
The incentives created to grow only program crops and protect base acreage are barriers to the adoption of more diverse cropping systems to prevent soil degradation and water pollution. The 1985 Food Security Act (PL 99-198) and the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act (PL 101-624) have reduced these barriers by freezing established yields at 1986 levels, applying severe constraints on the expansion of base acres, and increasing the flexibility to plant a variety of crops on base acres. Continued reform along these lines will help to remove barriers to adoption of farming systems that protect soil and water quality and permit time for farmers to adjust to new incentives.
Soil and Water Quality as Policy Objectives
Long-term protection of soil and water quality should be based on policies and programs that are independent of price support, supply control, or income support mechanisms; policies are needed that target problem areas and problem farms, regardless of participation in federal commodity support programs.
Research suggests that price support and supply control programs exacerbate soil degradation and water pollution. These programs, however, are not the cause of those problems—soil degradation and water pollution problems would remain even if these programs were eliminated. Incremental changes in conventional agricultural policies will most likely not result in major changes in farming practices and will likely result in only modest gains in soil and water quality.
In agricultural policy, environmental objectives have traditionally been closely linked with income support and supply control objectives. Since 1985, the traditional priority given to income support and supply control has been reversed on highly erodible cropland through programs such as Conservation Compliance and Sodbuster that make receipt of federal farm program benefits conditional on adoption of soil conservation measures. These programs should be fully implemented as an important step toward preventing soil degradation and water pollution.
Long-term protection of soil and water quality should not be an adjunct of income or price support policies. Price and income stability have been and may remain important objectives of national agricultural policy. Protecting soil and water quality will require gearing incentives and penalties toward problem farms in problem areas. Producers in problem areas may be different than those requiring income support and may be producing commodities not subject to price or supply control.
Producers decide to use new information and technologies for different reasons. There is no single solution to preventing soil degradation and water pollution. A range of policy instruments—from purely voluntary to compulsory—will be required. Integration of policy instruments to create consistent and lasting incentives for producers to use new information and technologies is essential.
Two types of research should be high priorities for USDA and EPA research programs: (1) research directed at identifying the nature and magnitude of
factors influencing producers' management of cropping and livestock production systems and (2) research leading to the development and implementation of new technologies, cropping systems, and methods to manage farming systems that are profitable and protect soil and water quality.
The application of science and technology to agricultural production has had a revolutionary effect on productivity. Scientific understanding coupled with improvements in production and information technology present agriculture a second opportunity to revolutionize production to meet the twin goals of profitability and environmental compatibility. In many localities, this second revolution is already under way as producers, researchers, and educators develop farming systems to solve local soil and water quality problems.
New technologies and management methods, however, are only successful if they can be efficiently used by producers. New programs are only effective if they are based on an understanding of the factors that influence producers' decisions to change their farming systems. Economic and social research should be a fundamental component of the development of new technology and new policies.
Aggressive public-sector programs, based on modern marketing methods, are needed.
The voluntary approach to change based on the provision of technical assistance has achieved substantial improvements in farming practices, particularly when there have been opportunities to improve environmental and financial performances simultaneously. New and more targeted approaches are needed, however, rather than wider use of the current approaches. Modern marketing methods should be used to tailor technical assistance and educational programs to target audiences.
Mechanisms should be developed to augment public-sector efforts to deliver technical assistance with nonpublic-sector channels and to certify the quality of technical assistance provided through these channels.
Crop-soil consultants, dealers who sell agricultural inputs, soil testing laboratories, farmer-to-farmer networks, and nonprofit organizations are increasingly important sources of information for producers. In many cases, these private sources of information have become more important direct sources of advice and recommendations than public sources. Soil and water quality programs need to take advantage of the capacity of the private and nonprofit sectors to deliver information and education to producers. The potential to accelerate the delivery of
technical assistance and information is great if methods can be developed to certify the quality of the technical assistance provided through these channels.
Research should be directed at the design of market-based incentives to protect soil and water quality.
Market-based incentives are being increasingly explored as alternative to strict command and control approaches to environmental regulation. Economic incentives such as tradable pollutant permits, taxes, or fees promise, at least conceptually, to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of protecting soil and water resources. Marketable permits are already used in the Clean Air Act and mechanisms to trade water rights are being used to allocate water between agricultural and urban users.
Many questions remain to be answered before economic incentives to address agricultural soil and water quality problems could be considered feasible alternatives to current approaches. The flexibility and potential efficiency of market-based incentives suggest that analysis of the feasibility of using market-based incentives should be accelerated.
A program to purchase selective use rights from producers through long-term easements should be developed to protect environmentally sensitive lands.
Some croplands, because of their soils, landscape position, or hydrogeological setting, cannot be profitably farmed without causing soil degradation or water pollution. Other lands, if managed as buffer zones or wetlands rather than as croplands, could help improve soil and water quality. Long-term easements are an effective way to encourage producers to change the land use on these environmentally sensitive lands. The specific set of rights purchased as part of long-term easements should depend on the environmental problem that needs to be solved and the farming system in use.
Nonvoluntary approaches may be needed in problem areas where soil and water quality degradation is severe and where there are problem farms unacceptably slow in implementing improved farming systems.
Although the opportunities to accelerate voluntary adoption of improved farming systems are great when such approaches also lead to increased profits, reliance on voluntary change alone may not achieve the improvements in soil and water quality increasingly demanded by
the public. Financially optimal improvements in farming systems also may not be sufficient to solve soil and water quality problems. In some watersheds, refinements that impose real costs on producers may be required to meet soil and water quality goals. Voluntary approaches that achieve general improvements in farming systems may not be enough if problem farms fail to respond. Nonvoluntary approaches will be needed to provide more permanent protection when commodity prices are high, damage to soil and water quality is severe, and problem farm owners or managers resist voluntary change.
Rights and Responsibilities
The legal responsibilities of landowners and land users to manage land in ways that do not degrade soil and water quality should be clarified in state and federal laws.
The philosophy that it is the responsibility of landowners and land users, as stewards of the land, to protect soil and water quality is a powerful ideal that is reflected in many of the traditional approaches to soil and water protection in U.S. policy. The ideal has been promoted through education, financial incentives, ethical imperatives, or legal mandates, and many landowners and land users manage their lands in ways that prevent soil degradation and water pollution. The lack of clarity and consistency in the legal definition of the responsibilities as well as rights of landowners and land users has impeded long-term comprehensive efforts in which publicly funded soil and water quality gains are made permanent. A policy that clearly establishes the responsibilities of landowners and land users—to manage their lands in ways that protect soil and water quality—would provide a consistent and uniform basis for implementing soil and water quality protection efforts on a permanent basis.