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

Chapter: 4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality

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Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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4
Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality

Chapter 2 described four major opportunities to prevent soil degradation and water pollution caused by farming practices and outlined the technologies and scientific knowledge available to take advantage of those opportunities. These four opportunities are

  1. to conserve and enhance soil quality as the first step to environmental improvement;

  2. to increase the efficiency with which nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water are used in agricultural production;

  3. to increase the resistance of farming systems to erosion and runoff; and

  4. to make greater use of field and landscape buffer zones.

These opportunities should be the goals that policies to protect soil and water resources seek to achieve. Chapter 3 recommended that soil and water quality programs target resources at problem areas and problem farms and use a farming system, rather than a best-management practice approach, to take advantage of the technical opportunities to prevent soil degradation and water pollution. Chapter 3 also outlined the improved tools and information that producers and program managers will need to implement a farming system approach to managing soil and water resources. Federal, state, and local programs could be made much more effective if these steps were taken.

There is considerable scientific and technical information on how to prevent soil degradation and water pollution, as the chapters in Part Two of this report demonstrate. Although gaps remain to be filled in

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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technology and information, the more important obstacle to improving soil and water quality is the lack of incentives for producers to use the knowledge and technology that already exists.

Ultimately, it is the millions of management decisions producers make each year that determine the effect of farming systems on soil and water quality. The purpose of national policy should be to create the proper incentives that induce producers to change the way they manage their farming systems. There is, however, much less known about the factors that influence producers' choices of cropping, livestock, and enterprise management practices than there is about the technologies and management methods that will protect soil and water quality. Empirical information on the costs of changing farming systems is often lacking or is anecdotal.

Many factors influence the decisions that producers make—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 (see Chapter 1, Figure 1-1). The agricultural sector is not made up of a homogeneous collection of uniform farms managed by producers with similar skills, resources, and goals. Instead, farming enterprises differ widely in the commodities they produce, the quality of their soils, and their topography. Ownership patterns and the labor or financial resources the producer can tap vary just as widely. Also, producers are a diverse set of people who have a variety of goals: profit maximization, minimization of management time, maintenance of a certain life-style, protection of personal independence, desire to obtain a certain social status, and observation of a particular environmental or religious ethic. This variability means there are many different reasons why producers choose to adopt or reject new farming systems (Table 4-1)—no single policy or program will influence all the producers whose behavior those policies seek to change.

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, however, can guide the development of national policies to change the way producers manage their farming systems.

ENVIRONMENTAL AND AGRICULTURAL POLICY

Environmental objectives have historically been closely linked with the larger goals of agricultural policy to support and stabilize the prices

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

TABLE 4-1 Constraints to Adopting New Technologies and Program Responses to Nonadoption

Constraint

Program Response

Inability

Basic information needed for a sound economic and agronomic analysis is lacking or scarce.

Generate and distribute information to those who need it.

Time, expense, or difficulty of obtaining site-specific information is excessive.

Reduce the costs of obtaining the necessary information by increasing accessibility to the information.

Complexity of a technology is inversely related to the rate and degree of adoption.

Redesign or simplify the technology.

Investment costs, costs of operation, or profit loss are too high.

Subsidize the adoption, or design a less expensive system.

Labor requirements are excessive.

Redesign the practice to reduce labor requirements or subsidize the hiring of adequate labor.

Unwillingness

Inconsistencies or conflicts exist in the recommendations of public sources (e.g., land-grant universities, USDA agencies), private sources (e.g., agribusinesses, financial institutions), or other sources (e.g., producer-to-producer referral networks, family members).

Work to develop a consistent set of recommendations. When legitimate differences between alternative recommendations exist, offer producers explanations of these differences.

Available information is not applicable or relevant to the producer's farm firm.

Generate and distribute relevant information on a local basis.

New technologies are not compatible with existing production systems or policies.

Develop flexible management methods and production practices capable of being altered to meet unique farm conditions.

Producer does not understand basic agronomic or economic aspects of a new technology, or agents who promote a new technology do not understand the basic needs of a potential adopter.

Determine the actual, not assumed, assistance needs and knowledge levels of potential adopters relative to those factors critical to adoption. Then, design education and assistance programs on the basis of producers' needs, not agency or business expertise.

Current planning horizon—relative to the time associated with recouping initial investments, learning costs, or depreciation of the present equipment line—is too short.

Redesign the system or subsidize a short-term unprofitable decision.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

Constraint

Program Response

Support from local equipment or agrichemical dealers, other producers, or USDA is lacking and information and assistance networks capable of answering producers questions are inadequate.

Build the capacity of local assistance networks to meet local demands.

Managerial skills are inadequate.

Develop skill-building opportunities for producers.

A decision cannot be made without the approval of a partner, the source of financial credit, the landlord, or some other third party.

Determine who can make the adoption decision and focus efforts on those persons or organizations. Also, recognize that an adoption decision is often a family decision, and therefore, persuasion or assistance efforts need to address relevant family members.

Technology is inappropriate for the physical setting.

Specify the physical applicability of the technology or design the technology to be more adaptable to different physical settings.

Complexity of a practice, importance of the timeliness of operations, and interdependence of inputs increase the perceived or real uncertainty and risk.

Risk can be addressed in two basic ways: either increase information so that probabilistic outcomes can be calculated or subsidize the producer so that he or she can take a risk.

 

SOURCE: Adapted from P. Nowak. 1992. Why farmers adopt production technology. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 47:14–16.

of agricultural commodities and, indirectly, support and stabilize the income of producers. Effective policies and programs to achieve long-term protection of soil and water quality, however, cannot simply be adjuncts of income and commodity policies. The problem areas and problem farms that should be the focus of soil and water quality policies may be very different than the areas and farms of producers requiring income support; and the commodities produced in problem areas or problem farms may not be the same commodities that are the target of programs to support and stabilize prices.

The objectives of commodity and environmental policy are different, and the mechanisms used to achieve those objectives also will be different. It is essential that these policies not create conflicting incentives, and reform of agricultural commodity policy to reduce incentives that lead to soil degradation and water pollution is important. In the long-term, however, policies to protect soil and water quality cannot

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

''Some folks don't know how to appreciate good news" (September 16, 1927). Credit: Courtesy of the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

depend on incentives tied to price and income support programs. The importance of creating soil and water quality policies that are independent of commodity and income policies is best understood by briefly reviewing the historical linkage of soil conservation and income support in agricultural policy.

A Brief History

Soil erosion problems in the United States were recognized by a few people early in the nation's history. Generally, however, new lands made available by westward expansion meant that producers and policymakers gave little attention to erosion. By the 1890s, exploitation of land and abandonment of farms when the land became "exhausted" was so commonplace that one of the first bulletins issued by the newly formed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urged producers to conserve the land they owned (Rasmussen, 1983).

The general public was alerted to soil erosion problems during the next few decades, mainly as the result of the efforts of one man, Hugh Hammond Bennett. Bennett was a soil scientist who was appointed to head the USDA's Soil Conservation Service at its creation in 1935. Bennett led a messianic campaign to convince farmers and legislators of the dangers of soil erosion. The initial federal response, in 1930, was to allocate funds to be used for soil erosion research (Kramer and Batie, 1985). Propelled by the Great Depression, stronger legislation soon followed.

When President Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, U.S. agricultural producers and their urban counterparts were in serious financial stress. The prices of farm products had fallen more than 50 percent since 1929. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (PL 73-10) represented a major shift in agricultural policy toward direct government involvement in markets and farm level decision-making. The act authorized USDA to enter into voluntary agreements with producers to take land out of production for compensation (Kramer and Batie, 1985).

Simultaneously, but independently, the U.S. Congress had created the Soil Erosion Service and authorized money to be spent to combat erosion. Conceivably, the two programs of farm income support and soil conservation would have developed separately. On January 6, 1936, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional, ruling that the production control provisions of the act were coercive. Policymakers, anxious to continue the supply adjustment program despite the ruling, found a way to use soil conservation as a vehicle for income support.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

"Don't blame factories for all the unemployment" (December 22, 1939). Credit: Courtesy of the J.N. "Ding" Darling Foundation.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

On February 29, 1936, Congress enacted amendments to the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act (PL 74-461), which required producers to submit conservation-oriented adjustment plans and to enroll in the Agricultural Conservation Program to participate in acreage adjustment contracts (Kramer and Batie, 1985). Producers thus were paid to set aside the acreage from "soil-depleting crops" and replace them with "soil-conserving crops" such as grasses. Since soil-depleting crops were also those crops that existed in surplus, the supply adjustment goals were accomplished by this reorientation. Soil conservation legislation was a legal vehicle for pursuit of farm relief and recovery.

From their inception, soil conservation programs were designed to support farm income and production as well as to reduce soil erosion. They remained popular because they lowered producers' operating costs, improved yields, and provided for compensation for idling lands from production.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis of soil conservation programs was on cost-sharing and technical assistance to encourage the adoption of soil-conserving practices. By the 1970s, rising commodity prices and reduced production controls encouraged producers to bring more land into production and to intensify production on their existing croplands. Some of this new cropland was highly erodible, and the push for full production led some producers to abandon conservation practices. A 1977 report by the Comptroller General to the U.S. Congress warned that soil erosion was still a serious problem, despite 40 years of soil conservation efforts (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1977).

Not until the 1985 Food Security Act (PL 99-198) was there an emergence of erosion control and water quality as independent objectives of agricultural policies. The receipt of income support was again linked to conservation practices, as in the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Income support, however, became conditional on the adoption of conservation practices on certain highly erodible lands. Soil conservation objectives took precedence over income support objectives, at least on the most highly erodible lands.

For the first time, to be eligible for farm program benefits, agricultural producers were required to implement a soil conservation plan for their highly erodible croplands. A conservation plan was required for highly erodible land converted to cropland from other uses, and Congress also established the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to pay producers to take highly erodible land out of production. However, many critics claim that the CRP, at least as initially implemented, was intended more to control supply and stabilize land values than to take the most highly erodible lands out of production (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1993).

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×
Incremental Redesigning of Agricultural Policy

Because of the history of multiple, competing objectives of agricultural policies and because of a recognition that agricultural policies are a major influence on commercial producers of commodity crops, there has been increasing attention focused on redesigning agricultural policies to remove any barriers to achieving environmental goals.

Recent research has pointed out that the current structures of price support and supply control programs erect barriers to the adoption of farming systems that improve soil and water quality. Where such barriers exist, they can seriously impede efforts to induce producers to change the way they manage their farming systems to protect soil and water quality.

Incentives are Perverse

Price support, deficiency payment, and supply control policies should be reformed to remove the barriers to voluntary adoption of improved farming systems.

The structure of U.S. farm programs induces a bias toward intensive farming practices to boost yields and to expand the base acreage of the cropland that can be enrolled in the price support programs. Deficiency payments are directly proportional to a farmer's historical yield, which is used to establish the program yield, and the historical cropland, which is used to establish the base acreage for the crop. These features create incentives for producers to increase plantings and boost yields to capture higher government payments in the future. The 1985 Food Security Act (PL 99-198) and the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act (PL 101-624) have moderated this bias by freezing program yields at 1986 levels and by applying constraints on the expansion of base acres.

In a study of potential farm bill influences, however, Dobbs and colleagues (1992) found that current agricultural policies still pose barriers to the adoption of more sustainable farming systems for some farms, despite the modifications made in the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act. For example, simulated reductions in target prices appeared to make farms that practice sustainable agriculture more profitable than farms that use conventional agricultural practices in northeastern and southeastern South Dakota. Dobbs and colleagues (1992) reported that giving producers who participate in agricultural programs more flexibility with respect to the choice of crop rotations did not consistently favor producers who practice sustainable agriculture.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

Runge and colleagues (1990) reviewed recent farm level studies that explored the difficulties that farmers confront when they attempt to participate in government programs and pursue environmentally sound practices simultaneously. They summarized their findings as follows:

These case studies suggest that farmers are currently confronted by a confusing set of signals that make it difficult to remain both profitable and environmentally responsible. In one case study in southwest Minnesota, farmers describe the current government programs as putting them in a "vise grip," resulting in cropping practices that distort the allocation of fertilizer and chemical inputs, and discourage crop rotations. While such practices, if changed, would not in themselves solve all of the environmental problems affecting agriculture, they would at least not aggravate them, as current policy appears to do. A second case study, conducted in Iowa, documents a similar set of problems, showing that under current federal farm legislation, crop rotations are discouraged in favor of continuous corn, using the highest levels of nitrogen fertilizer. A third case study, in southwestern Minnesota, an area similar to many other parts of the upper Midwest with vulnerable soils and groundwater, shows both commercial fertilizer and livestock waste must be closely accounted for if total nitrogen use is to reflect best-management practices. It also suggests that some land areas are simply more vulnerable to environmental damages than others, implying the need for more targeted environmental policies. Together, these case studies suggest that government policies and on-farm decisions are closely linked, and that better management practices will require both a different set of signals from Washington, and a renewed commitment to careful and precise farming methods that account for off-farm effects (Runge et al., 1990:v).

These studies reinforce some of the findings of a National Research Council study on alternative agriculture:

Federal policies, including commodity programs, trade policy, research and extension programs, food grading and cosmetic standards, pesticide regulation, water quality and supply policies, and tax policy, significantly influence farmers' choices of agricultural practices. As a whole, federal policies work against environmentally benign practices and the adoption of alternative agricultural systems, particularly those involving crop rotations, certain soil conservation practices, reductions in pesticide use, and increased use of biological and cultural means of pest control (National Research Council, 1989a:6).

The lack of crop diversity either within a field or over time (in rotation) appears to be a major constraint in achieving high soil microbial activity

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

necessary for high soil quality and attendant benefits for water quality (Harwood, 1993). The barriers created by current commodity policy may also constrain the development of innovative cropping systems to improve input use efficiency or resist erosion and runoff that were outlined in Chapter 2. Thus, the disincentives in agricultural programs for rotations and crop diversity are an important barrier for improving soil and water quality.

The incentives embedded in agricultural programs to increase production of certain crops are also a problem. The lion's share of government payments goes to producers of feed grains—especially corn, food grains (wheat and rice), and cotton—and indirectly to dairy products. Growers of most livestock products, fruit, vegetables, hay, and nearly all specialty crops are excluded from the direct influence of government programs. Although many vegetable and fruit crops that are not part of government programs receive high agrichemical applications, these crops occupy relatively small areas on a national level. In contrast, corn, cotton, soybeans, and wheat received an estimated 65 percent of total agrichemical applications (Fleming, 1987). Reichelderfer (1985) also concluded that program crops were more soil eroding on average than nonprogram crops.

Incremental Reform

The current incremental process of policy reform, such as the increased base flexibility provided by the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act (PL 101-624) and the freeze on established yields and the gradual decline in real target prices initiated in the 1985 Food Security Act (PL 99-198) have probably helped to encourage crop rotations and discourage excessive use of nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water. These incremental reforms have reduced the barriers to adoption of improved farming systems erected by the selectivity and structure of U.S. farm programs and have probably achieved modest improvements in soil and water quality. At the same time, the reformed policies have remained reasonably effective in meeting price support and stabilization objectives. Gradual reform along these lines will help to remove barriers to the development and implementation of improved farming systems and permit time for farmers to adjust to the new incentives.

Increasing Planting Flexibility

Current price support and supply control programs should be redesigned to increase the flexibility participants have to plant different crops in order to permit greater use of crop rotations, cover crops, and other changes in cropping systems.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

Calculation of deficiency payments on the basis of program yields and base acres has created inadvertent disincentives to diversity crop mixes and make other improvements in current farming systems. To producers, these features of the price support system send signals that conflict with policies to accelerate voluntary adoption of improved farming systems. Short-term reform of price support programs should reinforce current efforts to reduce the effects of price support programs on production decisions and to increase planting flexibility.

Of all the features of traditional commodity programs that have imposed barriers on environmentally sound farming practices, the rigid base acreage structure has probably been the most influential. (Base acres are the acres of a producer's cropland that can be planted to a crop for which deficiency payments are received; base acres cannot be planted to a different crop without incurring a penalty.) Consequently, this goal can be pursued by increasing the percentage of acres that can be planted to any base crop the producer chooses, along the lines of the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act (PL 101-624), or by giving producers complete 100 percent flexibility to plant crops on their base acres, as in the 1990 Normal Crop Acreage proposal of USDA.

Important economic factors, however, will constrain the degree to which producers diversify their farming systems even if the barriers erected by current commodity policy are relaxed. Increased flexibility will not result in wider use of crop rotations, intercropping, or multiple cropping unless markets exist for the crops added to the farming system. Specialty crops, such as canola or buckwheat that might be used in more diverse farming systems may have limited markets, thereby restricting the number of producers who can profitably incorporate those crops into their farming systems. In addition, widespread adoption of forages into farming systems requires diversification of the enterprise to include livestock. The effects of large-scale changes in the crops or forages used to feed livestock, however, could be significant. A model used in the Second RCA Appraisal, for example, predicted that given the model's flexibility to use least-cost combinations of grains and forages to meet the demand for livestock production, planted cropland would be reduced by about 26 million hectares (65 million acres) (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service, 1989a).

Nonincremental Reform of Agricultural Policy

Dissatisfaction with the efficiency and the fiscal and environmental effects of traditional farm programs has led some policymakers and scholars to propose redesigning or eliminating the current structure

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

(Boschwitz, 1987; Cochran, 1986; Cochrane and Runge, 1993; Harrington and Doering, 1993; Kramer and McDowell, in press; and Tweeten, 1993). In addition, the United States has sought, since 1987, to reduce subsidies to agricultural producers that distort production and trade as part of the negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

The nature of nonincremental reform includes proposals such as the substitution of producer-paid crop insurance, the decoupling of farm income support from crop yields, producer-financed price stabilization funds, and similar proposals. The arguments for elimination of agricultural programs are captured in the following quote of Tweeten:

Agriculture is no longer an industry of low income or low returns on resources nor would it be without commodity programs. Commodity programs transfer income from lower income/wealth taxpayers to higher income/wealth producers. Given the pressing need to promote economic efficiency and to reduce federal outlays and thereby the national debt, a strong case can be made for a transition program to end government intervention in agricultural markets.

This paper reviewed the numerous justifications for continued government intervention in farm markets. Problems of instability, the environment, poverty, cash flow, loss of family farms, and competitive challenges from abroad are real. However, commodity programs, as currently structured, do not respond in a cost-effective manner to any of these problems. By simultaneously trying to address all of these problems plus a nonexistent commercial farm welfare problem, none of the problems are properly addressed. It is time to disassemble commodity programs. Environmental problems need to be addressed by an environment program and the poverty problem needs to be addressed by a welfare program—though not unique to agriculture (Tweeten, 1993:28-29).

Limitations of Commodity Program Reform

Current research suggests that although price and supply programs exacerbate soil and water problems, they are not the cause of those problems. Even if these programs are eliminated, the need for programs that specifically address soil and water quality problems will remain. Incremental changes in agricultural commodity policies will most likely not result in major changes in farming practices and will likely result in only modest gains in environmental quality. The research evidence, as discussed below, also suggests that a decoupled "free market" agriculture that does not include mechanisms to address agricultural pollutants

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

in the environment will not result in improved protection of soil and water quality and may increase soil degradation or water pollution in some regions.

Effects of Program Elimination

Recently, attempts have been made to estimate the effects of eliminating price and supply management programs on soil and water quality. Doering (1991) suggests that there is little reason to believe that environmental quality would have been better had there been no government agricultural policies. Doering (1991) concluded that "changes in existing farm programs or even the elimination of these programs will not result in basic changes in the way farmers farm" (Doering, 1991:i). Hrubovcak and colleagues (1990) and Carlson and Shui (1991) reached essentially the same conclusion. They argued that the improvement in soil and water quality caused by the acreage reduction and supply control components of the farm programs offset the soil and water quality damage induced by the incentives to boost program yields and restrictions on planting flexibility.

In a model of the U.S. wheat sector, for example, Hertel and colleagues (1990) estimated that keeping federally established farm program yields at their 1985 levels would have reduced the use of nonland inputs (including fertilizers and pesticides) by 22 percent in 1986, a year when the target price of wheat greatly exceeded the market price. (The target price of an agricultural commodity is set by the federal government; the difference between the target price and the market price is the deficiency payment that producers receive from the federal government.) In 1982, a year when the market price of wheat was nearly the same as the target price, freezing of yields would have resulted in a 1 percent decline in the use of nonland inputs.

Faeth and colleagues (1991), however, recently modeled multilateral program decoupling and four other policy scenarios with respect to their impacts on producer incomes and off-site and on-site soil erosion costs. Multilateral program decoupling was projected to increase substantially the incomes of U.S. producers in response to significant world price increases as inefficient producers in other countries reduced their levels of production. The cost to U.S. taxpayers was also projected to plummet with multilateral program decoupling. On the other hand, off-site and on-site damages from soil erosion were projected to increase under the fencerow-to-fencerow farming practiced under the decoupling scenario. In order to make environmentally sound farming practices economically attractive to producers, it

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

was necessary to add the social costs of erosive practices into the production costs paid by farmers (Faeth et al., 1991).

Shoemaker and colleagues (1989) estimate that today's agricultural policies increase total chemical use by only about 12 percent on program crops but that the increase is less for nonprogram crops. Such results are similar to those of Doering and Ervin (1990), who showed that even with 100 percent flexibility, nitrogen use would decline only by 4 percent and pesticide use by 2 to 3 percent. Doering (1991) concluded that even a drastic change in the nature of traditional programs was likely to produce only modest changes in cropping patterns and input use.

Some studies suggest that there are stronger linkages between eliminating price and supply management programs and improved environmental quality. For example, Tobey and Reinert (1991) reported that national general equilibrium modeling predicted a decline in the use of fertilizer as well as off-site damages if the deficiency payments made to producers were reduced. Similarly, early studies by Dixon and colleagues (1973) and Richardson (1975) showed that the farm programs of the 1960s substantially boosted agrichemical demand. Dixon and colleagues (1973) estimated that in 1965, free market agricultural policies could have satisfied food and fiber demands with one-half the pesticides and fertilizers used under the prevailing farm program structure.

Environmental Policies for Environmental Goals

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 that target problem areas and problem farms, regardless of participation in federal commodity support programs, are needed.

The studies cited above differ in their estimates of the effects of federal agricultural commodity programs on soil and water quality. All of the studies, however, suggest that simply eliminating these programs will not solve soil and water quality problems. Programs that have as their primary objectives soil and water quality protection are needed now, and they will be needed regardless of how price and supply management policies are reformed. Society clearly has a stake in both the production of agricultural commodities and the protection and enhancement of soil and water quality. Soil and water quality programs need to become more independent of efforts to control supply or to support commodity prices and farm income.

Agriculture now faces an environmental agenda that has expanded beyond the historic concerns over erosion control to conserve soil productivity to include concerns over the loadings of nutrients, sediments,

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

pesticides, salts, and trace elements to both surface water and groundwater (Hamilton, 1993). Soil and water quality improvements have become important objectives of agricultural policies. Programs to improve soil and water quality can no longer be seen as adjuncts to programs that support prices or income.

FACTORS AFFECTING PRODUCERS' DECISIONS

The overriding objective of any soil or water quality program is to induce change among producers. The design of policies, then, should be based on an understanding of the factors that affect the decisions made by producers.

Many factors affect the decisions that producers make (see Chapter 1, Figure 1-4). Most important are those factors that determine the likelihood that producers will use new technologies and information to prevent soil degradation and water quality. Producers must first be aware that new technologies and information relevant to their farming system are available. Although obvious, this first factor is easily overlooked. The availability of information, however, is one of the most important factors cited in studies of the adoption of new technologies (Esseks et al., 1990; Nowak, 1992; Nowak and Korsching, 1983; Padgitt, 1989).

Even if producers are aware of new technologies, they may fail to adopt them because they are either unable or unwilling to do so (Nowak, 1992). These reasons are not mutually exclusive. Producers may be able but unwilling, willing but unable, or both unwilling and unable. The kind of technical assistance, education, or regulation required to influence a producer who is unwilling is very different from that required to influence a producer who is unable. Recognition of this difference is crucial when designing the appropriate way to increase the use of new knowledge or technology. Table 4-1 lists the reasons why producers may be unable or unwilling to adopt new technologies or farming systems and also suggests changes in programs that might help to address those reasons. Three general observations from the lists in Table 4-1 are important.

First, programs should address obstacles that make producers unable to adopt improved farming systems. Once these obstacles are removed, it may be possible to induce an unwilling producer to adopt an improved farming system. The removal of obstacles to adoption must precede persuasion for adoption.

Second, many factors that make producers unable or unwilling to adopt new technologies or systems are beyond their control. For

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

A chemist and a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service are studying the effect of different tillage systems on the movement of pesticides into groundwater. Here they take groundwater samples from a test site next to cropland at Beltsville, Maryland. Credit: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

example, some changes may have exceptionally negative impacts on profits. In such cases, changes in policies, prices, or technology may be needed before a producer will adopt new farming systems. In many cases it is not so much a producer failure as it is a system failure.

Third, the remedial strategies outlined in Table 4-1 are closely linked to the social and economic contexts of the farm enterprise. No single strategy to encourage or mandate the adoption of improved farming systems can be universally applied, and programs restricted to one or a few strategies will fail. Integration of a range of programs from technical assistance to nonvoluntary or regulatory programs will be needed to influence producers. Technical assistance, for example, may be sufficient to induce adoption by producers who are willing but unable to change their farming systems. The threat of regulation or penalties or the use of market-based incentives may be needed for producers who are able but unwilling.

CONTINUUM OF POLICIES

A continuum of policies ranging from research to regulation will be required to ''get the incentives right" so that producers are both willing and able to adopt new technologies and improve the management of their farming systems. Policies will need to specify exactly who will fund and direct research, provide technical assistance, provide market-based mechanisms, provide mechanisms to change land use, and use regulatory approaches. Policies must be clear about legal responsibilities of landowners and land users as regards soil and water quality. This range of policies describes a continuum from purely voluntary to purely compulsory approaches to change the behavior of producers.

In the real-world, there are no absolute demarcations between policies along the voluntary-to-compulsory continuum. Research and development of new technologies supports policies on either end of the continuum, and both voluntary and regulatory programs create a demand for research and development. Similarly, providing technical assistance or facilitating a change in land use may be essential components of either a regulatory or a voluntary approach. Integration along the continuum is essential to ensure that producers receive more lasting and consistent signals to adopt and sustain farming systems that improve soil and water quality.

Research and Development

Many recommendations for research and development of new information, technologies, and methods of managing farming systems have

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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been made in Chapters 2 and 3 of this report. The application of science and technology to agricultural production has had a revolutionary effect on agricultural productivity. The gains that public and private investments in research and technology transfer have made possible in agricultural productivity are now cited as models for other sectors of the economy. Scientific understanding, coupled with improvements in production and information technology present agriculture a second opportunity to revolutionize production to meet the twin goals of productivity and environmental compatibility. This second revolution is already under way—producers, researchers, and educators in many localities have developed farming systems that solve local soil and water quality problems.

The importance of research and the development of new production technologies and management methods is difficult to overstate. Often overlooked, however, is the importance of research to develop a better and more empirical understanding of the factors that influence the decisions that producers make. New technologies are successful only if they meet the needs of producers. New programs and policies are effective only if they are based on an understanding of the critical factors producers consider when they decide to purchase new technologies or adjust the way they manage their farming systems. Economic and social research should be a fundamental component of both the development of new technology and new policies.

Understanding Producers

Policy-relevant research directed at identifying the nature and magnitude of factors influencing producers' choices of corpping and livestock practices should be a high priority for USDA and EPA research programs.

The design of programs to protect soil and water quality is hampered by an inadequate answer to a fundamental and broad question: Why do producers make the choices they do? As discussed in Chapter 1, the agriculture sector is exceptionally diverse with diverse farms and diverse people. The major obstacle to the design of successful environmental policies will not be inadequate technical and scientific information; rather, it will be the lack of information as to the effective incentives for achieving change.

There is good general understanding of the factors that affect a producer's ability or willingness to adopt new technologies. Much more work, however, is needed to provide the empirical data needed to predict the effect of policies and programs on producers. Research is needed to measure and analyze the diversity of reasons why producers may be unable or unwilling to adopt a new system or technology. Such

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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understanding will allow the design and implementation of programs that influence the most important factors affecting producers' decisions. Such an approach could significantly increase the rates of adoption of improved farming systems.

Technical Innovation

Research leading to the development and implementation of new technologies, cropping systems, and methods to manage farming systems that are profitable

THE NARROWS CREEK-MIDDLE BARABOO PRIORITY WATERSHED PROJECT

The Narrows Creek-Middle Baraboo watershed, located within Salk County, Wisconsin, is 453 km2 (175 miles2) in size. It includes all the lands draining to the Baraboo River between Reedsberg in the northwest, Lime Ridge in the west, and West Baraboo in the east.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection named the Narrows Creek-Middle Baraboo a Wisconsin Priority Watershed during July 1990 because of degraded water quality and the impact of sedimentation on the aquatic habitat in the Baraboo River. The watershed is almost entirely rural, with croplands, pasturelands, and woodlands dominating the land use patterns. Dairying is the major agricultural activity, making manure runoff from barnyards and fields a major concern. Finally, much of the cropping occurs on steep slopes, which facilitates the transport of nutrients and pesticides to adjacent water bodies.

Local watershed staff identified all operators in the watershed who operated at least 16 ha (40 acres) of land and who had at least 15 beef or dairy cattle. Some 53 of the 261 operators met these two criteria but refused to participate in the initial interview (79.6 percent response rate). The Farm Practices Inventory was used to collect information from the 208 operators who agreed to participate prior to implementation of the watershed project.

The results of the Farm Practices Inventory were used to establish four priorities for the entire watershed project: (1) appropriate use and interpretation of soil tests, (2) nitrogen crediting from legumes, (3) nitrogen crediting from manures, and (4) construction of manure storage structures. The inventory, however, revealed that differences in the production practices that producers used within the watershed were great. Three regions within the watershed were defined on the basis of those differences. Each region required different emphasis among the four general priorities.

Region 1

Problems High levels of nitrogen (355 kg/ha [317 lb/acre] from all sources) are being applied; yet, corn yields average 7.96 metric tons/ha

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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and protect soil and water quality should be a high priority for USDA and EPA research programs.

Technical innovation is already expanding the alternatives available to producers to protect soil and water quality while sustaining productive and profitable farming enterprises. Indeed, the development of new methods to manage crop residues, nutrients, pesticides, and irrigation water has helped some producers make dramatic progress in protecting soil and water quality. The potential for technical breakthroughs leading to farming systems very different from those in use today is great. New

(127 bushels/acre), the lowest yield of the three regions. This region has the lowest number of operators who actually credit manure nitrogen (29 percent) and legume nitrogen (47 percent) and the highest manure application rates (230 kg/ha [205 lb/acre]); and those crediting manure are under crediting available, first year nitrogen by 39.9 percent (for example, crediting 67.3 kg/ha [60.1 lb/acre] when 112 kg/ha [100 lb/acre] are available). The sandy soils in this region make the manure storage facilities difficult to design and expensive to construct. Moreover, the overall nitrogen and phosphorus application rates on corn are not significantly different between those few livestock or dairy producers with manure storage structures and those who use a daily manure haul system. Finally, the future plans indicate that 10 percent of the dairy producers will downsize or stop farming within the next 5 years.

Solutions Implementation strategies for region 1 need to emphasize proper crediting and other crop nutrient management issues largely through education and use of various information transfer mechanisms. A major theme could be the $26.60 operators are spending on commercial nutrients per hectare of corn ($10.77/acre) when on-farm nutrient sources are available. Educational efforts directed toward private agrichemical dealers are also important. The majority of operators in the region rely on the dealer for soil testing, interpretation, and recommendations based on soil test results. Synthetic fertilizer recommendations need to be adjusted more realistically for on-farm nutrient sources. The use of cost-sharing dollars for manure structures is not warranted in this area.

Region 2

Problems About one-third of the producers (34 percent) apply nitrogen at more than 50 kg/ha (45 lb/acre) above the recommended level. The total nitrogen applied in this region averages 237 kg/ha (212 lb/acre) compared with the recommended level of 179 kg/ha (160 lb/acre). Yet, less than one-third (32 percent) of the producers with animals credit the manures from these animals. Of those who do, they under credit the available first year nitrogen by an average of 52.2 percent. This region also has significantly more manure storage structures than the other two regions.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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tests to determine the need for additions of nutrients, pesticides, or irrigation water; methods to adjust applications of inputs and tillage operations to changes in soil quality; methods that link computer-based decision systems with simple data collection methods or remotely sensed data that can be easily used by producers; and the development of imaginative cropping systems that alter the pattern or sequence of crops to protect soil and water quality are a few of the most promising developments. Many of these opportunities have been discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 and in Part Two of this report.

Region 2 is likely to see a small increase in livestock (12 percent) and cash crops (6 percent) over the next 5 years, whereas dairy and forage production will remain static.

Solutions Implementation in region 2 needs to focus on two issues. First, there needs to be proper application and crediting of manures from existing manure storage facilities. Second, most farmers do not differentiate between corn fields in relation to nitrogen and manure application rates, even though their fields differ greatly in slope and soil characteristics and drainage.

Region 3

Problems Some 35 percent, or 29 of 84 ha (72 of 207 acres), of all tillable land receives manure from an average of 92 dairy cattle, 23 beef cattle, and 5 swine per farm. More producers in this region credit manures (34 percent) and legumes (67 percent), although the process is not wholly accurate. Only eight of the farms have manure storage structures. Some 12 percent of the producers in this region have wells that test for nitrate-nitrogen in excess of 10 mg/ml (10 ppm), and another 74 percent have wells that test for nitrate-nitrogen in the range of 2 to 10 mg/ml (2 to 10 ppm). Yet, the topography, soils, and location of the farm wells indicate that much of this pollution is derived from point sources (for example, farmstead design issues). Dairy, livestock, and the supporting forages will continue to grow in this region for the next 5 years. Cash crops, on the other hand, will decrease.

Solutions Dairy and livestock are the major focus of the farmers in region 3. Implementation strategies focusing on field nutrient management issues will have lower salience than those associated with herd management. Farmstead design, manure management, and runoff structures need to be oriented to the implications for herd management (for example, lowering of somatic cell counts or reducing conditions conducive to mastitis). The number of animals combined with the rolling topography of this region indicate that phosphorus management is a critical issue. Education on the role of manures in phosphorus management is also a critical issue. Education on the role of manures in phosphorus maintenance, possible cost-sharing of soil testing, and building of structures need to be emphasized in this region.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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The development of innovative technologies is, in the long-term, the most promising way to achieve lasting protection of soil and water quality while sustaining profitable production of food and fiber. A sustained program of research and development is an essential component of policies to prevent soil degradation and water pollution.

Technical and Financial Assistance

Voluntary change has been the dominant approach used in the past to improve the farming practices used by producers. These programs have been characterized by the following:

  • reliance on the development of conservation plans for individual farmers with free technical assistance provided through an extensive network including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Soil Conservation Service, USDA, and the Cooperative Extension Service of the USDA;

  • reliance on voluntary adoption of conservation plans, with incentives provided through cost-sharing arrangements and education; and

  • reliance on self-regulation through local Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service of the USDA and county Soil and Water Conservation District committees.

New Approaches

The voluntary approach to change through technical and financial assistance has achieved improvements in farming practices, particularly when there have been opportunities to improve environmental and financial performances simultaneously. The success of programs to encourage the adoption of conservation tillage, which reduces both soil quality damages and tillage costs, is a good example.

There are clear opportunities to improve farming systems in ways that improve both environmental and financial performances; policies should, in the short-term, first seek to take advantage of these opportunities.

Chapter 2 outlined a diverse set of technical opportunities to implement farming systems that prevent soil degradation and water pollution. In many cases, these opportunities will have minimal or no negative effects on profitability. In some cases, the implementation of new farming practices and better farm management may increase profitability. The magnitude and nature of these opportunities will vary from region to region, crop to crop, and farm enterprise to farm enterprise. The tools and knowledge needed to implement these opportunities

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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A technician with the Agricultural Research Service measures the height of a grass hedge at the lower end of a cotton plot while the agronomist records the data. Hedges protect fields by holding back soil that would otherwise move off-site with water or wind. Credit: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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are, in many cases, already available. The short-term goal of agricultural policy should be to accelerate the rate at which these improved farming systems are implemented.

The Cooperative Extension Service of the USDA should develop the information and methods needed to segment target audiences and tailor an accelerated educational program to target audiences including producers, crop-soil consultants, dealers who sell agricultural inputs, and others who affect producers' decisions.

The crops grown, production practices, and management intensities vary widely among producers. Chapter 3 emphasized the need to recognize these differences and target efforts to improve farming systems to those problem farms that cause more soil degradation or water pollution. Similarly, the techniques used to deliver new knowledge and technology to producers should be tailored to differences in the socioeconomic characteristics of producers and to differences in the structures of farm enterprises.

An extensive body of research demonstrates how to link the dissemination of new knowledge and technology to the socioeconomic characteristics of the segmented, target audience as well as to the stage of the decision process affected by new knowledge and technology. This type of segmentation and refinement in disseminating new knowledge and technology is largely nonexistent in the implementation of current soil and water quality programs.

Procedures and methods need to be developed for program managers at the local level so that they can integrate more sophisticated marketing techniques into the dissemination of new knowledge and technology. Program managers need rational techniques to augment their familiarity with the local conditions gained through experience in a particular location and to tailor the dissemination to local social and economic characteristics.

Potential for Change

The potential for programs based on technical and financial assistance is illustrated by efforts in Iowa to improve nitrogen management. In 1982, a consortium of state and federal organizations began implementing a coordinated set of programs in Iowa to improve soil and water quality. One of the primary objectives was to improve nitrogen management because of widespread detections of nitrates in both surface water and groundwater in the state. Although improved nitrogen management was the primary goal, an integrated approach to farming systems was the basis of the program. The program was implemented

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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with a network of demonstration and implementation projects that attempted to accelerate the adoption of known technologies that would result in immediate improvements in nitrogen management. These projects were coupled with an aggressive marketing and educational effort designed to reach those producers who could improve nitrogen management in their operations (Hallberg et al., 1991)

The results of this program are promising. In the Big Spring Basin area that was targeted by the program, 52 percent of the 200 area producers reported in 1990 that they had reduced their applications of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer since 1981. The amount of nitrogen applied to corn was reduced 21 percent—a 0.454 million-kg (1 million-lb) reduction in nitrogen loading to the watershed and a cost savings of $200,000 per year for area producers. Statewide demonstration projects that used an improved late spring soil test for nitrogen reduced nitrogen applications by 62 percent in 1989 (23 sites) and 21 percent in 1990 (41 sites) with no differences in yields. The greater reductions in 1989 were due to drought-induced crop failures in the preceding year that left large amounts of nitrogen in the soil for use by the crops in 1989.

Statewide data show that since 1985 Iowa producers have reduced the amount of nitrogen they use, despite declines in fertilizer prices and contrary to trends for the Corn Belt as a whole. Since 1986, these reductions total more than 363 million kg (800 million lb) of nitrogen and represent a cost savings of more than $120 million. The experience in Iowa suggests that aggressive, coordinated efforts can accelerate the voluntary adoption of improved farm management techniques, at least when improved management results in financial as well as environmental benefits. It is too early to tell, however, whether these voluntary improvements in nitrogen management will be sufficient to meet water quality goals.

Market-Based Incentives

Past experience with point source control has shown that environmental regulation can be expensive to enforce and expensive for firms to adhere to. William K. Reilly, who was the administrator of the EPA during the Bush administration, wrote

It is becoming increasingly clear the reliance on the command and control approach to environmental regulation will not, by itself, allow EPA to achieve its mission or many long established environmental goals. A number of persistent, seemingly intractable problems remain. Whereas in the past we focused mainly on controlling pollution from large, industrial sources, we are now confronted by environmental concerns that stem from a diverse range of products and activities. …

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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To maintain progress toward our environmental goals, we must move beyond a prescriptive approach by adding innovative policy instruments such as economic incentives. Properly employed, economic incentives can be a powerful force for environmental improvement (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1991:iii).

The economic incentives considered by EPA include refundable deposits for pesticide containers, changes in water prices, and fees on the carbon contents of fossil fuels (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1991). Such incentives could be extended to include tradable permits for groundwater withdrawals or taxes based on the leaching or runoff properties of agrichemicals (Jacobs and Casler, 1979; Shortle and Dunn, 1986; Tatenberg, 1985). EPA has also experimented with trading pollution permits between point and nonpoint sources, but with limited success (Carpenterier, 1993).

Research should be directed at the design of market-based incentives to protect soil and water quality.

Already used in the Clean Air Act (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992) marketable permits, have also been used in agriculture to allocate water in the West (Wahl, 1989) and could conceivably be used to allocate nutrients or pesticides (Atkinson and Tietenberg, 1982; Bartfeld, 1992; Bower, 1980; Eheart et al., 1983, 1987; Krupnick, 1989; Letson, 1992; Malik et al., 1993; O'Neil, 1983a,b; Taylor, 1975). Marketable permits would require that a permit system be established in a targeted region. The permits would limit the total use of pesticides or nutrients within the region or would base permits on environmental quality standards. Producers who wish to use pesticides or nutrients would need to have a permit specifying the amount and use; the permits could be sold to others if unused. There is an increasing body of literature addressing market-based incentives for environmental goals (see, for example, Malik et al., 1993). Capalbo and Phipps (1990) note that many questions need to be answered before marketable permits for chemicals could be viewed as a feasible alternative to existing approaches; however, the flexibility of the approach, the year-to-year consistency of chemical use regardless of market agricultural policy signals, and the gravitation of permits to where they yield the highest return suggest that further analysis of the feasibility of using marketable permits is warranted.

Facilitating Changes in Land Use

Voluntary or nonvoluntary adoption of improved farming systems, in itself, may prove to be insufficient to meet soil and water quality goals. Increased nutrient use efficiencies, for example, may not be sufficient to

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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control nitrogen and phosphorus losses from watersheds where the concentration of livestock outstrips the available cropland on which to apply manures. Similarly, reducing soil erosion may not be sufficient to reduce sediment damage in streams unless riparian areas are protected or restored. In addition, there are lands that, because of their soils, landscape position, or hydrogeological setting, cannot be profitably farmed, even using improved farming systems, without degrading soil or water quality. Long-term changes in land uses in such cases are needed to protect soil and water quality.

Long-Term Easement Program

A program to purchase selective use rights from producers through long-term easements (an easement program) should be developed to provide incentives to producers to use environmentally sensitive lands sustainably so that they do not threaten soil and water quality.

The intent of an easement program should not be to retire land from all productive uses but, rather, to prevent its use in ways that result in damage to soil or water quality. The program should serve as a way to make the transition to farming systems that are more appropriate to these sensitive lands. The specific set of rights purchased would depend on the environmental problem being addressed and the farming systems currently in use. Such easements might simply purchase the rights to grow row crops on the land covered by the easement; all other economic uses would be allowed. More restrictive easements could be used to protect riparian zones and wetlands.

The use of land set-asides has long been a component of programs to control both supply and soil and water quality damage. Figure 4-1 illustrates the history of such set-aside programs. The area of land involved in set-aside programs has varied dramatically over the past 40 years. Most recently, the Conservation Reserve Program has retired about 15 million ha (36 million acres) of highly erodible cropland. Although soil and water quality protection is great while set-aside lands are out of production, gains in soil and water quality can be lost when set-aside programs are terminated.

The easement program should be designed to support rather than replace efforts to accelerate voluntary change or to initiate regulations.

Accelerated voluntary and regulatory programs should be pursued on those lands that can be profitably and sustainably farmed by using available farming systems. The purchase of easements should be limited to those lands that cannot be sustainably farmed by using improved

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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FIGURE 4-1 History of land set-aside programs in the United States as cropland area reductions by type of program (1933–1991) and net farm income (1945–1990). CAA, Conservation Adjustment Act; ACP, Agricultural Conservation Program; CAP, Cropland Adjustment Program; CRP, Conservation Reserve Program. Source: W. M. Crosswhite and C. L. Sandretto. 1991. Trends in resource protection policies in agriculture. Pp. 42–46 in Agricultural Resources: Cropland, Water and Conservation Situation and Outlook. Report No. AR-23. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Resources and Technology Division.

farming systems or those lands that society would rather be used as habitat for fish and wildlife or recreational opportunities rather than to produce food and fiber.

Selling use rights then becomes one of several options a producer might use to meet soil and water quality goals. Long-term easements are written on a case-by-case basis, are flexible, and can be targeted to the needs of both the land and the landowner. Several alternative legal methods or instruments can be considered, including the use of easements (conveyances of property), long-term contracts (personal promises), covenants (promises connected to the land), or maintenance agreements. Landowners, however, may prefer contracts rather than options such as easements that are more permanent.

The easement program should be designed so that state and local governments can supplement the program with efforts of their own and so that the program

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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does not interfere with local efforts to control soil erosion or protect water resources.

Easement programs can be integrated with other local environmental programs concerning issues such as farmland preservation, expansion of recreational opportunities, and water quality protection to maximize the environmental benefits acquired with public funds and to ensure coordination between various environmental protection efforts.

Advantages of Easements

The most important advantage of an easement program is its focus on environmental improvement and its flexibility in being able to purchase use rights only for those lands that present environmental problems. The program could be tailored to local environmental and agricultural conditions.

For carefully selected, environmentally sensitive lands, long-term easements, or their equivalent, may offer a permanent and more cost-effective form of soil and water quality protection from a public standpoint. Appropriately designed and implemented, a system of long-term easements may be more attractive to landowners because it would allow for the recovery of partial compensation for the land while also allowing continued economic activity on the land, which would remain in private ownership.

The use of economic incentives, such as through the public acquisition of easements, is an attractive intermediate alternative to sole reliance on either voluntary or nonvoluntary approaches to protecting soil and water quality. Voluntary programs may not create a mechanism for achieving soil and water conservation on all lands, and nonvoluntary measures may create economic burdens on landowners. Easements offer the benefit of being voluntary and providing partial compensation (Hamilton, 1993). The approach may be more acceptable politically and may be more attractive to farmers and landowners than reliance on regulatory approaches. Because the environmental benefits obtained by using easements are either long-term or permanent protection, they are insulated from changing policies.

Implementing an Easement Program

Producers with lands currently under Conservation Reserve Program contracts should be offered the option of selling selected use rights, under long-term easements, to those lands currently under contract as a way of meeting compliance standards for bringing those lands back into production.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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About 15 million ha (36 million acres) of cropland have been enrolled in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts at a cost of more than $7 billion through 1991 for rental payments and cost-sharing to plant vegetative cover on croplands enrolled in CRP (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, 1990). It is essential that the environmental benefits purchased through this program not be lost as contracts expire. Long-term easements that purchase rights to only those land uses that cause soil and water quality degradation, even under the best available farming systems, should be offered as a way to ease the transition of these lands to sustainable uses as CRP contracts expire. The lands eligible for such easements should be identified on the basis of the severity of soil and water quality damages expected if these lands were farmed using the best available farming systems. A program should be developed to review existing CRP contracts, as they near expiration, to identify tracts of land most appropriate for permanent protection and to solicit landowner interest in entering some form of long-term protection program.

The various legal authorities for using easements contained in the 1990 Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act should be fully funded and implemented to expand public awareness of the concept, to gauge landowner attitudes to using easements, and to give the USDA and other agencies experience in using easements.

Efforts should be undertaken at the federal level to expand the use of long-term easements, or similar mechanisms, for protecting soil and water quality. A major obstacle to using easements may be overcoming landowners' resistance to the concept of conveying partial interest in their lands to the public. Successful implementation of easements will require educational programs that focus on the reasons for landowner resistance and the levels of compensation that reflect the true costs to the landowners. Successful implementation of a system of long-term soil and water resource protection, such as easements, will also require agency commitment to the development of workable programs for promoting the availability of the programs, drafting easements, and implementing and managing the agreements. The recent success of the wetland reserve pilot program and the level of landowners' interest in selling wetland easements indicates that U.S. producers are interested in long-term easement programs.

Need for Nonvoluntary Approaches

Although the opportunities to accelerate voluntary adoption of improved farming systems are great when such approaches also lead to

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

increased profits, reliance on voluntary change or market-based incentives alone will not always be sufficient to achieve the improvements in soil and water quality increasingly demanded by the public.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is an example that shows that voluntary change alone has not been large enough or fast enough to meet environmental goals. By the year 2000, jurisdictions participating in the Chesapeake Bay program (Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Pennsylvania) are to reduce their nutrient loadings to the bay by 40 percent. In 1990, a panel of producers, state agency staff, environmentalists, and academics assembled by the EPA Administrator William K. Reilly reported to EPA that current efforts would not be enough to meet the 40 percent goal. The panel concluded that voluntary incentives, at least as implemented in the past, had not been effective enough and that nutrient loadings were much larger than originally estimated (Nonpoint Source Evaluation Panel, 1990). The panel recommended that greater regulatory authority was needed to address agricultural as well as other sources of nutrient loadings to the bay watershed. The panel recommended that livestock operations, particularly large or intensive operations, or operations that were planning to expand should be targeted (Nonpoint Source Evaluation Panel, 1990).

Although comprehensive data on the production practices and management systems used by producers are not available, most of the data that were reported and discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 indicate that producers use a wide range of production practices and that there is wide variability in the degree to which they refine their management systems. These data suggest that a smaller set of problem farms may well be responsible for a substantial share of soil and water quality problems. If these producers fail to volunteer to participate in programs to improve their production practices and management systems, then voluntary programs may not improve soil and water quality enough to meet public demands.

State and Local Legislation

The inherent limitations in programs to accelerate voluntary change have led to greater exploration of nonvoluntary approaches to accelerate adoption of improved farming systems. State and local governments have increasingly turned to more nonvoluntary approaches to changing farming systems in areas where soil and water quality damages are severe.

Ribaudo and Woo (1991) reviewed state water quality laws that affect agriculture and found that states were adopting a variety of approaches—including

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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input control, land use controls, and economic incentives—to address water quality problems caused by agricultural production. Because of water quality concerns, 27 states have adopted laws that could affect farm management decisions (Figure 4-2).

Evaluating the Role for Regulation

Regulatory approaches based on clear planning or performance standards should receive greater attention to achieve more permanent protection in areas where soil and water quality degradation is severe and for problem farms that are unacceptably slow in implementing improved farming systems.

Regulatory approaches will be needed to provide more permanent protection when commodity prices are high, damage to soil and water quality is severe, and voluntary change does not result in adequate improvements.

The arguments against regulatory approaches are well known and have been stated often. Mandating soil and water quality improvements can be expensive and ineffective if enforcement is inadequate or costly. Critics also claim that such regulations can potentially imperil private property rights. Furthermore, regulations might alter the relationships between the farming community and soil and water conservation agencies by turning the latter into ''police officers" and the former into "lawbreakers" if regulations are not met. Others express concern that regulations cannot be written in a manner that provides the necessary flexibility to reflect the varying soil and water resources and farming systems found throughout the United States.

At the same time, there are advantages to grounding U.S. soil degradation and water pollution prevention efforts on a strong regulatory footing. Regulatory requirements can clearly state the objectives that a producer must meet and can be applied uniformly to all landowners and operators whose actions might degrade soil and water resources. If the producer meets certain standards, then compliance can be the basis for providing other benefits. Clearly defined planning or performance standards can provide the foundation on which other programs—including educational programs, programs that provide financial incentives, and cost-sharing programs—can be based.

Perhaps the most important benefit offered by using a regulatory approach is the promise of permanence. If landowners or operators are required to meet soil and water quality standards, these standards will apply in all circumstances regardless of changes in market prices, ownership of the land, production systems, the structure of the farm enterprise, or the goals of the producer.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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FIGURE 4-2 States with water quality laws that affect agriculture. Source: M. Ribaudo and D. Woo. 1991. Summary of state water quality laws affecting agriculture. Pp. 50–54 in Agricultural Resources: Cropland, Water and Conservation Situation and Outlook. Report No. AR-23. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Research and Technology Division.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

The recognition of the value of including a regulatory approach in U.S. soil and water quality policies is not recent, as seen by the fact that the model state conservation law, on which all state enactments were originally based, included as a major component of the legal powers of the districts the power to implement land use regulations to protect soil and water quality. Although the history of the use of that authority by districts has been limited, there is growing interest in using regulations, as reflected in the innovative approaches being developed at the district level in many states. Likewise, the importance of regulatory methods for delivering and enforcing soil conservation policies has long been recognized and debated in the scholarly discussion of soil and water quality policy.

Implications of the Structure of Agriculture for Regulation

The processing of many agricultural crops and most livestock is increasingly concentrated in a few firms (Barkema et al., 1991). Poultry is the most highly concentrated sector, and indications are that the hog industry is following the same processes of consolidation as the poultry industry (Barkema and Cook, 1993). It is probably not coincidental that the sectors of agriculture showing the most concentration are those that are not provided risk and income protection in federal agricultural price support and supply control programs.

In many cases, these firms contract directly with producers to provide crops and livestock. These contracts can specify, often in detail, the quality of the harvest required and, in some cases, the production practices that must be used. This vertical integration of contracted producers with processors has transferred substantial influence over the management of crop and livestock enterprises to processors.

The changing structure of agriculture suggests that regulation may increasingly be directed at processors and may seek to influence producers through their contracts with processors. Poultry processors, for example, could be required to specify requirements for the disposal and use of poultry manure in their contracts with poultry producers. If regulation required that whoever owned the poultry was to be responsible for appropriate manure disposal, then the liability for environmental damage would move from the individual poultry producer to the processor. Producer contracts would of necessity be altered to address the disposal problems associated with manure and dead poultry. Many individual producers could be affected by regulations directed at a handful of firms in agricultural sectors that are highly concentrated and integrated.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

Furthermore, there would be incentives for processors to develop low-cost manure disposal alternatives. If the regulation covered the entire poultry sector, no one processor would be placed at an economic disadvantage to another. Although poultry prices might rise, depending on increased processor costs, consumers would be making choices based on prices that better represent the true social costs of poultry production. Similar regulation might be addressed toward other sectors of agriculture that evidence high rates of concentration.

Clarifying Landowner Responsibilities and Rights

Bromley (1990) noted that landowners have enjoyed a wide range of actual and presumptive rights that have undergirded both environmental and agricultural policies. This arrangement automatically places the burden of proof—and of possible compensation—on the state when there is the need to (1) improve the environmental impacts of agriculture, (2) constrain agricultural output in the face of expensive surpluses, or (3) modulate swings in agricultural incomes. However, these arrangements of rights and responsibilities that have served well for many years are undergoing reevaluation.

The legal responsibilities of landowners and land users to manage their lands in ways that do not degrade soil and water quality should be clarified in state and federal laws.

Many landowners and land users manage their lands in ways that protect soil and water quality. Many others express their desire to improve their management to protect the environment. Clarifying society's expectations should encourage others to improve their management and help further public policies regarding the protection of soil and water resources.

The absence of a clear statement of the legal responsibilities as well as the rights of landowners and land users for managing their lands in ways that do not degrade soil and water quality has impeded efforts to protect soil and water quality. Basing publicly funded soil and water quality protection efforts on an articulated policy that establishes the legal responsibilities and rights of landowners and land users to protect soil and water quality offers the opportunity to provide a consistent and uniform basis for implementing soil and water quality protection efforts in a permanent manner.

Some argue that soil is simply a component of the land and thus is private property, meaning that efforts to limit the use and misuse of soil are constrained by constitutional limitations on exercise of the police

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

power. Water quality, however, is more clearly a common good, the use and utility of which is subject to legitimate public policy concerns. Although landowners may own the soil on their farms, it is less arguable that they own the water that flows across it or under it, especially if ownership leads to degradation of its value for use by other individuals or the public. Soil also has some common-good characteristics since, as discussed in Chapter 2, soil quality is directly and indirectly linked to water quality and protecting soil quality is a fundamental step toward protecting water quality. The broadening of agricultural environmental issues from soil conservation to protecting soil and water quality brings with it a stronger public basis for codifying the responsibilities of landowners to protect soil and water quality.

The duty of landowners to protect soil and water quality, as reflected in the ideal that the landowner is ultimately responsible for preserving the sustainability of the land, is a powerful ideal that is reflected in many of the traditional approaches to soil and water conservation found in U.S. policy. In 1938, for example, Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace stated: "The social lesson of soil waste is that no man has the right to destroy soil even if he does own it in fee simple. The soil requires a duty of man which we have been slow to recognize" (Wallace, 1938: iii). And in 1943, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a law requiring advance notice for terminating farm tenancies. The court stated:

It is quite apparent that during recent years the old concept of duties and responsibilities of the owners and operators of farm land has undergone a change. Such persons, by controlling the food source of the nation, bear a certain responsibility to the general public. They possess a vital part of the national wealth, and legislation designed to stop waste and exploitation in the interest of the general public is within the sphere of the state's police power [8 N.W.2d 481 (Iowa 1943)].

This ideal of stewardship has been promoted in many ways, such as through education, financial incentives, ethical imperatives, and in some instances, legal mandates. Iowa, for example, enacted soil conservation legislation that states, in part:

To conserve the fertility, general usefulness, and value of the soil and soil resources of this state, and to prevent the injurious effects of soil erosion, it is hereby made the duty of the owners of real property in this state to establish and maintain soil and water conservation practices, as required by the regulations of the commissioners of the respective soil conservation districts (Iowa Code, 1991:Section 467A.43).

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality, when it was challenged by a farmer required to implement soil conservation practices, noting: "[T]he state has a vital interest in protecting its soil as the greatest of its natural resources, and it is right to do so" [279 N.W.2d 276 (Iowa 1979)]. Several other states have enacted legislation that implicitly acknowledges the responsibilities of landowners and land users to protect soil and water quality (Figure 4-2).

This combination of incentives to encourage landowners to meet their stewardship responsibilities has resulted in significant progress, for example, as reflected through the work of the local soil and water conservation districts. However, the existence or acceptance of a duty to protect soil and water quality is not consistent among all landowners or in all soil and water conservation programs.

Advantages of Defining Rights and Responsibilities

The national commitment to protect soil and water quality could be stated simply and directly in a manner that applies uniformly to all landowners and operators, regardless of their participation in federal farm programs. The concept of a duty to prevent soil and water quality degradation could be used as the basis for delivering and implementing other soil and water quality policies. These policies could include acceleration of voluntary adoption of improved farming systems, use of market-based incentives, reform of agricultural policies, implementation of nonvoluntary programs, and the administration of long-term easements.

The lack of a consistent definition of the legal responsibilities landowners have to protect soil and water quality as the foundation for soil and water quality programs has impeded the ability to build long-term comprehensive efforts in which publicly funded soil and water quality gains are made permanent. Basing soil and water quality protection efforts on an articulated policy that establishes landowners' responsibilities to manage their lands in ways that protect soil and water quality offers the United States the opportunity to provide a consistent and uniform basis for implementing soil and water quality protection efforts in a permanent manner.

The important value of establishing the responsibilities as well as right of landowners would be in the practical and psychological shift in the orientation of federal soil and water quality efforts. In codifying a landowner duty to protect soil and water quality, the burden of primary responsibility for protecting soil and water quality would shift from the government to the individual landowner. Rather than use programs that

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water Quality." National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/2132.
×

are based on inventing ways to educate, encourage, or coerce producers into protecting soil and water quality, the reorientation would establish that landowners and operators have a duty to protect soil and water quality from degradation. Rather than it being the government's responsibility to induce landowners to improve farming systems, it will be the duty of landowners to protect soil and water quality, with the government playing only a supporting role.

Implementation

This clarification of landowners' and operators' responsibilities to protect soil and water quality could be moved forward in many ways:

  • through education and voluntary compliance (essentially the history of the first 50 years of U.S. soil conservation programs);

  • by integration of duties into existing federal farm programs as a condition for eligibility, as is now being done through Conservation Compliance, Sodbuster, and Swampbuster;

  • by contractual agreement, as is the case with the CRP and the proposed use of long-term easements;

  • as an imposed legal duty under state law, as is the case under the Iowa soil erosion control law, which makes it the duty of each landowner to protect his or her land from erosion by complying with the applicable county soil loss limits;

  • as a function of private legal relationships, imposed either by the parties, such as through inclusion of such standards in the terms of a farm lease, or through the judicial imposition of stewardship under such common law concepts as the "covenant of good husbandry," which courts in many states attach to all farm lease relations; and/or

  • a program to certify producers as stewards, analogous to the current programs requiring certification prior to using certain pesticides.

Articulation of landowners' responsibilities as well as rights to use their lands in ways that degrade soil or pollute water will allow producers who are committed to protecting soil and water quality to reaffirm their commitment to doing so and will offer a basis for public programs to change farming practices that are causing soil and water quality problems.

Suggested Citation:"4 Policies to Protect Soil and Water 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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PART TWO

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Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture Get This Book
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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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