Nitrogen Pollution's Farm Policy Roots

Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room. When Minnesota environmental officials announced the results of a new major nitrogen pollution study on Thursday, they were surprisingly frank about how bad the problem is, but just as surprisingly hesitant to name a major underlying cause: federal farm policy.

First the problem: basically, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found that nitrogen contamination is so bad in the southern half of the state that 27 percent of our lakes and rivers are too polluted to be used for drinking water. The 50,000 water samples and 35 years of monitoring data show that 70 percent of that nitrogen contamination is coming from crop fields. Anyone remotely familiar with agriculture knows that Minnesota’s most prolific crop, corn, is the biggest consumer of nitrogen fertilizer, which is applied at various times of the year through various methods.

And much of the corn-soybean cropping system in this state relies on drainage tiling systems , and research has clearly shown that despite the best practices, this system is leaky. The MPCA study reaffirms that fact and pegs tile drainage as the most important pathway for sending nitrogen into our water.

Conclusions drawn from the MPCA’s forthright, 400-page report can’t be ignored: the sheer volume of nitrogen fertilizer being put on the land is harming our state’s water. But when it comes to finding a solution, a key point is being missed.

One of the MPCA's main proposals for solving this problem is encouraging farmers to "better optimize their use of fertilizers." Yes, finding ways to make all that corn less polluting is part of the answer, but it's not the only answer—unless of course one sees no other options than raising more corn on more land. Restricted options can quickly lead to a feeling of helplessness in dealing with the problem, as comments made Thursday by Minnesota Commissioner Dave Frederickson make clear.

“It’s all ag economics,” Frederickson was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying. Earlier in the same article, he conceded that, “Maybe we will never get there” when it comes to reducing nitrogen pollution to safe levels.

Such comments imply that the invisible hand of the free market is driving record high corn prices and there isn’t much that can be done other than “optimize” fertilizer applicants—something that water quality experts say will fall far short of dealing with water problems, by the way.

But it goes much deeper than the latest Chicago Board of Trade futures price for commodities. The current system of agriculture based on growing more corn has its roots in a federal farm policy that promotes maximum production no matter what the environmental (or economic) consequences.

Nitrogen pollution isn’t about individual farmers making decisions in a vacuum—it’s about a farming system and public policy (incentives) that drive those farmers to plant as much corn as possible. And that means more nitrogen on our fields and more nitrogen in our waters.

In recent years, federally subsidized crop insurance has become the central farm policy mechanism for determining how much corn is planted where. Specifically, the crop insurance “revenue guarantee” on every acre of those crops fuels a trend to more corn in general, even if it’s on sub-par crop ground. Farmers who receive highly subsidized insurance now have little incentive not to plow up land that previously was too wet, erosive or otherwise too fragile to raise a good crop on, a clear distortion engendered by poor policy.

By guaranteeing income no matter what those acres yield, there is no longer an economic brake on plowing them up or diversifying your farming operation. This distortion is compounded by the fact that we have no limits on the amount of crop insurance subsidies a producer can receive (on average 60 cents out of every dollar of their premiums) or income limits on eligibility and the degree of support is offered. This dynamic means more corn and soybeans, and fuels consolidation and concentration in farm country as well.

Crop insurance is already the most expensive farm-orientated program at over $87 billion over the next 10 years, and Farm Bill proposals by Congress propose to grow it by another $5 billion to $10 billion, while practically every other federal agriculture program takes cuts (including conservation).

As we’ve written in this blog previously, crop insurance is an important safety net for farmers. However, changes to it over the years have made it a major driver of some pretty negative changes to the landscape.

A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study published in February reported that between 2006 and 2011, 1.3 million acres of grassland were converted to crops in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. The researchers said such conversion rates haven’t been seen since the 1920s and 1930s .

Those grassland acres are key if we are to truly bring nitrogen pollution under control. U of M research in southern Minnesota has shown that nitrate-nitrogen losses from continuous corn and corn-soybean systems were about 37 times and 35 times higher, respectively, than from land planted to perennial hay crops or in perennial grass systems.

MPCA officials acknowledged on Thursday that planting perennials on marginal land is part of the solution. However, to truly make a dent in this problem, some land currently in row crops will need to be re-diversified into perennial systems.

That's not likely as long as federally subsidized crop insurance remains in its current form. The bottom line? If crop insurance remains unreformed and is expanded even more, we will have more nitrogen on more corn acres, and that means more pollution in our water.

No amount of “optimizing” fertilizer applications or using wood chips to soak up excess nitrogen will be able to keep up with this deeper, systemic problem: government policy is promoting corn over diverse farming systems.

Admitting we are not on top of the nitrogen pollution problem was a brave move on the part of state officials. Now they and all of us who care about our state's waters need to take the next step and push for a real solution: reforming farm policy.

Adam Warthesen is a Land Stewardship Project organizer who works on federal farm policy issues. He can be reached at 612-722-6377 or adamw@landstewardshipproject.org.