Choices journal focuses on water quality and ecosystem health in the Mississippi River Basin, with a keen eye on agricultural policy. Their December issue includes four papers presented at a recent conference that examine the political and institutional factors that have governed the design of conservation programs in the US, the design flaws that limit the effectiveness of these programs and the role that emerging technologies can play in leading to science-based conservation policy design.
In his paper, Nexus between Food, Energy and Ecosystem Services in the Mississippi River Basin: Policy Implications and Challenges Madhu Khanna says, “One of the great challenges for the US Corn Belt is increasing the productivity of food and fuel production while reducing nutrient runoff, which is a key contributor to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi–Atchafalya River Basin (MARB) drains about 41% of the conterminous United States and includes the Corn Belt, which is one of the most productive farming regions in the world. The hypoxic zone (Dead Zone) in the Gulf is the second largest in the world; in the summer of 2017 it was equal in size to the state of New Jersey, the largest extent ever recorded. Excess nutrient run-off generated by tillage and fertilizer-intensive agricultural and livestock production in the MARB is estimated to contribute about 80% of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (N) and more than 60% of delivered phosphorus (P) in the Gulf of Mexico (White et al., 2014). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2007) estimates that a 45% reduction in both N and P loadings from the MARB relative to the 1980–1996 average annual level is needed to achieve desired reductions in the size of the hypoxic zone.
Citing various sources, this paper makes the point that expanded agricultural use of the land not only impacts water quality but increases greenhouse gas emissions (due to loss of carbon storage) and reduces habitat needed for wildlife and pollinators, many of which are natural enemies of agricultural pests. Studies found that the expansion of corn production for ethanol has contributed to worsening the dead zone in the Gulf. Changing farming practices will be expensive, both in the cost of implementing new practices and in the loss of revenue to farmers. This paper cites analysis by Rabotyagov (2014), stating that the “lowest-cost strategy for achieving the hypoxia goal [reducing the dead zone in the Gulf] is estimated to cost approximately $2.7 billion per year in terms of lost profitability”. The upfront costs include obtaining equipment, machinery and establishing alternative perennial crops are considerable.
In CBO Baseline and the Potential for Conflicts by Expanding CRP, Jonathan Coppess looks at funding constraints in the coming Farm Bill. The Agriculture Act of 2014 (Federal Farm Bill) is the most important piece of legislation that affects farm and food policy in the US. Title 2 of this act includes eleven different programs aimed at conservation and water quality improvement, the largest of which are the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Regional Conservation Partners Program (RCPP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Conservation Technology Assistance (CTA). Each program has a specific focus and target, and their coordination is not ideal.
Expanding these programs, or adding new programs, will take funds from other programs under current budget disciplines being followed by the US Congress, so the stakes are high. South Dakota Senator John Thune, has proposed an alternative to traditional CRP enrollment.
“Called the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), his proposal would provide for short-term (3–5 years) reserved acres with a maximum of 15% of the cropland on a farm (Thune, 2017; S.499, 2017). The shorter contract period would make the program more responsive to market conditions. In addition, it permits some harvesting activities on the acres while under contract. From a baseline perspective, the proposal is designed to reduce the costs of enrolling acres. For one, it would limit rental payments to 50% of the average rental rate for the county. Senator Thune’s proposal has some historical precedent as well. Early farm bills used conservation rental payments to rent land out of production for a single crop year, but this policy was part of controversial efforts to control production through limiting acres.”
In his article “Policy Reforms Needed for Better Water Quality and Lower Pollution Control Costs”, James Shortle points out inefficiencies in our current conservation programs. He “found that prioritizing practices based on their cost-effectiveness along with crude spatial targeting could reduce annualized costs of achieving required agricultural N, P load allocations across the [Chesapeake Bay] watershed state by 27% to 80%... “ He also advocates a fuller blending of approaches for managing point and nonpoint source pollution, specifically through a more robust trading program. Trading pollution credits allows for spending on practices that result in greater pollution reduction for less cost.
The final article in this series is “Conservation Programs Can Accomplish More with Less by Improving Cost-Effectiveness” by Marc O. Ribaudo. One way that more can be accomplished with less is through performance-based payments, where actual reductions, rather than theoretical reductions based on changes in practices, are rewarded with payments. Ribaudo also encourages the use of community conservation principles. “Community conservation” engages all farmers in an impaired watershed to work on solutions in a group setting. Community recognition of environmental performance and the demonstration of innovativeness and entrepreneurship in managing a farm could increase conservation-oriented thinking on the part of those who were traditionally motivated primarily by profit. LWV UMRR and other groups providing outreach could have a role in this.
Choices, the magazine of food, farms and resource use, is the principal outreach vehicle of the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association.