Regulations alone can't fix our water problem

Suzy Friedman

This is an adaptation of a post first published on EDF’s Growing Returns.

Regulations and lawsuits generate more tension, disagreement, division and – too often – failure to communicate, than just about anything else in the agricultural world.

The reality is that we have a water quality crisis on our hands, and three regulatory developments under way right now to address this crisis:

  • Ohio is considering stricter fertilizer regulations after last summer’s toxic algae outbreak.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency is developing a plan to improve protections for certain wetlands and streams. (Congress, meanwhile, may consider legislation to counter these efforts.)
  • A federal court may order EPA to establish nutrient criteria and pollution limits for Gulf states that have not already done so.

Is there a better way?

Despite the significant conservation improvements on the part of farmers, as well as a number of regulatory efforts, agriculture remains the largest contributor to water quality problems in the United States.

But is further regulating the agricultural industry the only answer to reducing its impact on water quality? Is there a better way, a more viable alternative? If yes, what can compel us to make that alternative happen?

Making the business case for water quality

Instead of battling over regulations or pointing fingers, we at Environmental Defense Fund want to focus on finding the ways that work – not just environmentally, but also economically and logistically. We need solutions that deliver benefits for water and climate and also make business sense for farmers and the agricultural sector over all.

That’s why we’re working with companies like Walmart, Smithfield/Murphy Brown, General Mills, and United Suppliers, which are are all stepping forward to make fertilizer optimization and soil health in commodity agriculture a part of their business model.

But of course, changes to the supply chain can’t happen without the farmers we all rely on for food every day. We need the agricultural community to be full partners in developing and implementing practical solutions that can head off regulation.

During my almost 15 years at EDF, I’ve had countless conversations and interactions with farmers and agricultural leaders, most of whom are fully on board to play this role.

Economic upsides of sustainable farming

We believe there’s a solid business case for farmers to embrace sustainable management and to bring about water quality improvements without regulatory controversy. But we need to do a much better job laying out the economic upsides to scale up approaches to farm management that not only are sustainable today, but in a future of even greater productivity demands.

Here are five key benefits of sustainable farming:

1. Improved profitability and yields. Efficient fertilizer management and measures to improve soil productivity increase a farmer’s bottom line by ensuring that input costs are returning improved long-term yields.

2. Increased confidence. Many sustainability tools are based on improved collection and interpretation of field data. Better information means growers can be more confident in the decisions they make.

3. Increased market appeal. Retail and food companies are committing to sustainability goals and making sustainability demands on their suppliers. Embracing sustainable management will position growers at the forefront of this marketplace momentum.

4. Improved reputation. Sustainable production offers growers and their advisors a way to document and communicate their effective and responsible management of the land, and their contributions to improved water quality, climate stability, soil conservation, and food security.

5. New revenue streams. Sustainable management will create opportunities for farmers to participate in the carbon credit market through California’s cap-and-trade program, which will soon pay farmers in the United States for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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