Shaping a Smarter Environmental Policy for Farming

Article excerpt

The use of compelling incentives not direct controls is the best way to reduce agricultural pollution.

In the summer of 1997, Maryland Governor Parris Glendening suddenly closed two major rivers to fishing and swimming, after reports of people becoming ill from contact with the water. Tests uncovered outbreaks of a toxic microbe, Pfiesteria piscicida, perhaps caused by runoff of chicken manure that had been spread as fertilizer on farmers' fields. Glendening's action riveted national attention on a long-overlooked problem: the pollution of fresh water by agricultural operations. When the governor then proposed a ban on spreading chicken manure, the state's poultry producers lashed back, claiming they would go out of business if they had to pay to dispose of the waste.

The controversy, and others springing up in Virginia, Missouri, California, and elsewhere, has galvanized debate among farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, and regulators over how to control agricultural pollution. The days of relying on voluntary controls and payments to farmers for cutbacks are rapidly ending. A final policy is far from settled, but even defenders of agriculture have endorsed more aggressive approaches than were considered feasible before recent pollution outbreaks.

Maryland's proposed ban is part of a state-led shift toward directly controlling agricultural pollution. Thirty states have at least one law with enforceable measures to reduce contamination of fresh water, most of which have been enacted in the 1990s. Federal policy has lagged behind, but President Clinton's Clean Water Action Plan, introduced in early 1998, may signal a turn toward more direct controls as well. After decades of little effort, state and federal lawmakers seem ready to attack the problem. But there is a serious question as to whether they are going about it in the best way.

The quality of U.S. rivers, lakes, and groundwater has improved dramatically since the 1972 Clean Water Act, which set in motion a series of controls on effluents from industry and in urban areas. Today, states report that the condition of two-thirds of surface water and three-fourths of groundwater is good. But where there is still degradation, agriculture is cited as the primary cause. Public health scares have prompted legislators to take action on the ranoff of manure, fertilizer, pesticides, and sediment from farmland.

Although it is high time to deal with agriculture's contribution to water pollution, the damage is very uneven in scope and severity; it tends to occur where farming is extensive and fresh water resources are vulnerable. Thus, blanket regulations would be unwise. There is also enormous inertia to overcome. For decades, the federal approach to controlling agriculture has been to pay farmers not to engage in certain activities, and agricultural interest groups have resisted any reforms that don't also pay.

Perhaps the most vexing complication is that scientists cannot conclusively say whether specific production practices such as how manure and fertilizer is spread and how land is tiered and tilled will help, because the complex relationship between what runs off a given parcel of land and how it affects water quality is not well understood. Prescribing best practices amounts to guesswork in most situations, yet that is what current proposals do. Unless a clear scientific basis can be shown, the political and monetary cost of mandating and enforcing specific practices will be great. Farmers will suffer from flawed policies, and battle lines will be drawn. Meanwhile, the slow scientific progress in unraveling the link between farm practices and water pollution will continue to hamper innovation that could solve problems in cost-effective ways.

Better policies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and state agricultural and environmental departments are certainly needed. …