Photo: Lynn Betts/USDA (flickr)
Prices And Erosion On The Rise
As food prices soar, farmers and food producers are farming more precarious land, clearing steep hills and tilling the earth that would have been considered too risky to farm. With food prices at record highs and projected to continue to rise, the investment seems worthwhile.
The danger is erosion. Research from Iowa State University scientists and environmental organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Iowa Daily Erosion Project say that soil erosion is on the rise, and is much worse than the government estimated.
The USDA estimates that Iowa erodes 5.2 tons of soil per acre annually. According to that figure, this leaves a layer of soil only a about a millimeter thick, which is still within a maintainable degree for Iowa farmers.
However, recent studies show that Iowa farms are losing soil up to 12 times faster than this estimate.
According to the EWG, 97 percent of soil erosion is preventable through conservation practices, such as leaving crop residue on the fields instead of plowing it under, planting vegetation like trees and grass in strips along fields and waterways, and not farming all available land every year.
Standing In The Way Of Conservation
But, it’s not that easy.
There is a lot of pressure on farmers that makes these conservation practices difficult. Because the prices for crops like corn and soybeans are so high, farmers can not afford to allow fields to go fallow. Farmers are even asking the Iowa Agriculture Department for permission to farm marginal and noncropped areas.
Under monetary pressure, some farmers use more fertilizers to make up for the crop yields that are hurt by erosion.
Many farmers rent land and may not be knowledgeable about its erosion history.
On top of this, the new federal budget cuts 12 percent from the Agriculture Departments conservation funds. As it stands now, only 1 percent of farmers are checked for erosion compliance to USDA standards.
Oh, and dramatic, heavy rains have hit Iowa increasingly hard over the last few years. Blamed on climate change, these rains dump violent water that washes away the soil. Professor Richard M. Cruse from Iowa State notes, “In a variety of locations, we’re losing topsoil considerably faster — 10 to as much as 50 times faster — than it’s forming.”
Harming The Earth And Water
Erosion can threaten crop yields as plants become undernourished and vulnerable to the elements. Iowa is one of the nation’s leading grain producers, so lower yields from this state’s famously rich soil will negatively effect the global food crisis.
Furthermore, erosion can damage water quality as fertilizers, pesticides, and manure run off the land, seriously threatening both local and national water supplies as the chemicals are washed out to the ocean. Most famous of these is the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been so polluted by fertilizers that no plants or animals can survive there.