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Where Has All the Soil Gone?

Thirty years ago, Missouri had the second highest erosion rate in the nation. The Department of Natural Resources says conservation practices save the soil. Photo courtesy of: DNR
Thirty years ago, Missouri had the second highest erosion rate in the nation. The Department of Natural Resources says conservation practices save the soil. Photo courtesy of: DNR
August 12, 2013

ST. LOUIS, Mo. - The combination of last year's record drought and this year's heavy spring rains has scientists wondering if efforts to restore Missouri farmland are going to waste. Thirty years ago, Missouri had one of the worst soil-erosion rates in the nation, but conservation practices over the years cut that in half. The Agriculture Department says that in the past five years though, Missouri farmers have taken a half a million acres of land out of conservation programs. As a result, wetlands are disappearing - and so is the soil.

Kat Logan-Smith, director of environmental policy, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, blamed rising grain prices.

"With corn prices the way they are, the incentives are all stacked against conservation," Logan-Smith said.

According to the USDA, nationwide 10 million acres have been dropped from conservation programs, and scientists are seeing the worst erosion in years. If it continues, food prices and crop-insurance costs will rise.

Logan-Smith said one solution is for the new farm bill to require farmers to protect their land in order to qualify for crop insurance. The Senate included that provision in its version of the bill, but the House did not.

The president of the National Wildlife Federation, Larry Schweiger, has warned that the nation is at risk of making the same mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl. Logan-Smith shares his concern. She said she doesn't want heavily fertilized soil to wash into Missouri's drinking water, as it has elsewhere.

"Iowa is sort of the poster child for nutrient pollution. They had to build a nitrate-removal system in their public water supply in Des Moines because their rivers are so high in farm fertilizers that they're not safe to put through the drinking-water system," she said.

Even without congressional action, insurance companies could save money by giving premium discounts to farmers who practice good stewardship of the land, she pointed out.

"They could say, 'If you are going to be a good steward of your soil and water, we know that you are going to have fewer crop losses. We know that your land is going to be more fertile and more productive - and for that, we are going to give you a discount on your premiums,'" she said.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said soil-conservation programs have saved more than 100 million tons of soil during the last 30 years. The Congressional Budget Office has predicted that tying conservation practices to crop insurance could save taxpayers $55 billion over the next 10 years. Logan-Smith said it could also help to protect drinking water, wildlife and wetlands.

More information is available at http://static.ewg.org.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - MO