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The Challenges of Working ‘with’ Agriculture to Address Freshwater Conservation

De Geue, Dave 3/31/2011

In a recent Iowa State University poll of Iowa farmers, 78 percent said they should be doing more to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment entering waterways and lakes — and 58 percent believed that nutrients from Iowa farms contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Fifty-eight percent would also consider establishing nutrient treatment wetlands on their farm to meet EPA nutrient reduction targets.

The poll suggests there is no lack of willingness by agriculture to address water quality. I think this proactive attitude may be surprising to some. There has been a longstanding attitude among many in the environmental movement that industry — and agribusiness or the agricultural community in particular — is unwilling to do the right thing by the environment and therefore must be forced to do so. Some bloggers and activists seem to rail against anyone who collaborates with the agricultural industry, choosing to label agribusiness as the “other” — a diabolical force that must be defeated through regulation, boycotts and endless media attacks. Collaboration with this sector seems to be totally out of the question.

The Nature Conservancy is one of the most rural of any major non-governmental environmental organizations in the United States. We have very few urban projects, and many Conservancy project staff live in rural areas and work directly with farmers and ranchers. The Conservancy also has an extensive 60-year history of working with agriculture across the United States. And since nearly 88 percent of the precipitation in the United States falls on the 907 million acres of pasture, range and cropland managed by our nation’s 4.7 million farmers and ranchers, the Conservancy is uniquely positioned to collaborate with an industry that influences the fate of our nation’s waters. Constructively engaging the 2 percent of our population who manage 50 percent of our country’s watersheds is a highly leveraged activity.

Unfortunately, the term “community-based conservation” is rarely used within the Conservancy these days in discussions about leverage. Instead, we have shifted our focus to highleverage policy strategies and seem to regard grassroots engagement with agriculture as a low leverage activity. But as we focus more and more on national and international agricultural policy and freshwater conservation, I think it’s important to understand that those policies that have broad grassroots community support are going to bear the most conservation “fruit.” The sort of “radical” collaboration needed to craft such policies will not be welcome by some. But Conservancy staff members know that collaboration is not a dirty word. It’s an extremely effective conservation strategy.

One of the most promising agricultural collaborations involves the Conservancy’s participation in the Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture being facilitated by the Keystone Center. Through Field to Market Conservancy, Great Rivers Partnership staff are working with the soybean, wheat, rice, cotton and corn grower associations, the American Farm Bureau, and companies like Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta and Dupont to craft sustainability metrics for U.S. agriculture. The Fieldprint Calculator, which is emerging through this remarkable radical collaboration, will enable farmers to evaluate the sustainability of their operations against that of other farmers and for the first time enable them to “grade” their own performance.

In a recent test of the Fieldprint Calculator’s energy efficiency metric (a test led by Bunge Corporation), nearly 100 percent of Nebraska farmers who were asked to participate did so. The Fieldprint Calculator allowed them to see how their energy efficiency stacked up against that of their neighbors — a very important piece of information in a highly competitive industry. This kind of grassroots, industry-led competition to be more sustainable and more profitable is good news for freshwater conservation; it provides exactly the kind of leverage required to take conservation to the scales it needs to be effective.

Note: Future versions of the Fieldprint Calculator will include both biodiversity and water quality metrics. With support from Wells Fargo, the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership will be funding a research fellowship at North Carolina State University to develop the biodiversity metric.

For more information on the Field to Market Alliance, contact Michael Reuter. For information on the Fieldprint Calculator, contact Dave De Geus. Michael is the director of TNC’s Great Rivers Partnership (GRP), and Dave serves as the Sustainable Ag Lead for GRP.