It’s about time! Everyone knows that increased regulation always solves the problem. ~ quote penned by Tim Eshleman, sarcastic brother-in-law.
Recently I wrote a post that encouraged ag retailers to assist farmers with future regulations. Since then, I have been asked for my opinion several times on regulating agricultural pollution. As I ponder this question, I find the answer is complicated. First, let me go on record by saying that I absolutely believe farmers need to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality. The science is crystal clear. Farmers cause a significant portion of these problems, not only in the Midwest, but across the nation. Farmers need to do more and they need to do more now. Not just some farmers, but all farmers, not 10 years from now, not 5 years from now, but right now. So what is the solution?
Our voluntary approach is a failure…
On April 27, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Soil Conservation Act; legislation that took aim on reducing soil erosion. After 80 years, we are still trying to get it right. Conservation agencies have spent untold dollars on staffing and incentive programs. And we are still just chipping away at the problem.
Anyone who says the pathway to successful conservation is through a modest increase in costshare dollars or government staffing is clueless. And, the idea that “more of the same” solves these problems is complete and utter nonsense. It doesn’t take an Albert Einstein to realize doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results is the definition of insanity. If the only path forward is the status quo voluntary approach, then I pronounce the voluntary approach as a failure and reject it completely. But where does that leave us?
The regulatory approach…
As I talk to people, there are two completely different reasons given for wanting to regulate agriculture. First, some individuals truly believe regulations will lead to real environmental change. And second, some individuals want to take punitive actions against farmers. As one environmentalist recently told me, “I am tired of fighting with agriculture. If farmers don’t react to the voluntary method then let’s just regulate the bastards.” To those of you who want to “regulate the …” hey, I get it. I really do. Everyone who feels they have been ignored wants to fight back. But spite and malice doesn’t solve problems.
I have to agree with Howard G. Buffett, an Illinois farmer and son of billionaire Warren Buffett. “Regulations never work well.” This is confirmed by the research of Michelle Perez. Perez says, “Given the “insidious” nature of nonpoint-source pollution, inspectors cannot easily detect and attribute nutrient pollution to a specific farm; nor can they easily determine whether a farmer is following a certified nutrient management plan or other management-related practices. Farmers who do not believe that following the nutrient recommendations in their plan would produce an economically viable crop or are too risk averse to give it a try are not easily regulated.”
If I thought the regulatory approach worked I would be more in favor of more regulation. But honestly, I think agriculture is too complex to be regulated effectively. And NO, this is not a cop-out for doing nothing. Again, farmers absolutely need to do something now. But personally I don’t want to get 15 years from now, with all the bloodletting that will come from regulation, only to find out we created a great paperwork system that had no effect on advancing soil and water conservation.
So what is the answer?
It is obvious the current delivery system for voluntary conservation is broken. However this does NOT absolve farmers from their responsibility of protecting the environment. Farmers cannot simply stand back and blame their poor environmental performance on the lack of costshare dollars and technical assistance. The burden of fixing the “system” rests squarely on the shoulders of agriculture. Farmers need to encourage the agricultural leadership to lobby for and develop a better voluntary system that can effectively serve their needs.
I encourage agricultural leadership to do the right thing. Design and enact a voluntary conservation delivery system that will bring effective change. I must admit I don’t know exactly what this new system looks like, but I know the success lies within the private ag retail system. Ag retailers must be a part of the solution. If ag retailers don’t get involved and the status quo continues, farmers will certainly face regulations. Regardless of whether these regulations are enacted out of good intentions or for punitive reasons, farmers will be stuck with these regulations.
Agriculture can do better. Agriculture must do better.