National Academies Press: OpenBook

Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture (1993)

Chapter: Enhancing Soil Quality

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Suggested Citation:"Enhancing Soil Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
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Suggested Citation:"Enhancing Soil Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
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Page 5

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 4 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 AGENDA 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.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 5 ''Sometime those boys should get together" (July 1, 1947). Credit: Courtesy of the J. N. "Ding" Darling Foundation. 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).

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How can the United States meet demands for agricultural production while solving the broader range of environmental problems attributed to farming practices? National policymakers who try to answer this question confront difficult trade-offs.

This book offers four specific strategies that can serve as the basis for a national policy to protect soil and water quality while maintaining U.S. agricultural productivity and competitiveness. Timely and comprehensive, the volume has important implications for the Clean Air Act and the 1995 farm bill.

Advocating a systems approach, the committee recommends specific farm practices and new approaches to prevention of soil degradation and water pollution for environmental agencies.

The volume details methods of evaluating soil management systems and offers a wealth of information on improved management of nitrogen, phosphorus, manure, pesticides, sediments, salt, and trace elements. Landscape analysis of nonpoint source pollution is also detailed.

Drawing together research findings, survey results, and case examples, the volume will be of interest to federal, state, and local policymakers; state and local environmental and agricultural officials and other environmental and agricultural specialists; scientists involved in soil and water issues; researchers; and agricultural producers.

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