Is Clean Water Worth the Hassle?

Prairie Gleanings

Our farm system is set up to deliver maximum yields. Is it worth changing to a system that prioritizes protecting the environment?

Published on: May 4, 2011
Some months, I sit down to write articles and every word flows from the pen like magic. As Farm Futures executive editor Mike Wilson once put it, “Sometimes there are stories that just seem to write themselves.”

This is not one of those months.

For several days, I’ve been wading through pages of notes from about 10 sources on what needs to be done to reduce nutrient runoff and clean up Illinois’ water. It’s a complicated topic, and there’s a lot of pressure on our state to do something.

Yesterday, I chatted with Mark David, at the University of Illinois. David is in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. He’s been studying water quality for about two decades now.

During the conversation, David and I took a huge step back and looked at this from a global perspective. David points out that we have always prioritized yields as the top goal in agriculture for quite some time now. (FYI: there was a time when just having a crop was the top concern.) As a result, we consistently produce a crop that helps feed the world.

Thus, are some of the negative effects from nutrient runoff worth the fact that Illinois farmland is feeding millions of people?

I don’t have the answer. Though, I feel as more folks distance themselves from the farm, cleaner water will take a higher priority than it has in the past. When this series of articles hits the mailbox in June, don’t forget that this is the basic question. We’ll look at tile drains, tillage practices, potential policy change, and more.

The ag system prioritizes yields in order to maximize food production. Do we need to change our thinking in order to create a system that prioritizes environmental impact? And, another biggie, if society tells us protecting the environment is the top priority, where is the money to change the system? Installing buffer strips isn’t cheap.

It’s a lot to think about. With the U.S. EPA pushing for change, everyone in ag needs to be plugged in on this issue. Ag industry leaders anticipate a lot of potential change in the coming years with regard to this issue. Get into the debate now. There may be a chance you can turn challenges into opportunities.

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