Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Increased crop production, changing weather and relaxed regulations erode Midwest landscape

Last year's rush to cash in on soaring corn and soybean prices has left many hillsides and pastureland throughout the Midwest bare and at risk for erosion during the heavy spring rains. "Long in decline, erosion is once again rearing as a threat because of an aggressive push to plant on more land, changing weather patterns and inadequate enforcement of protections, scientists and environmentalists say," William Neuman of The New York Times reports. Research from Iowa State University scientists shows erosion is taking its toll in parts of Iowa and erosion has been exacerbated by severe storms.

"The thing that’s really smacking us now are the high-intensity, high-volume rainstorms that we’re getting," said Richard M. Cruse, agronomy professor at Iowa State and director of the Iowa Daily Erosion Project. "In a variety of locations, we’re losing topsoil considerably faster — 10 to as much as 50 times faster — than it’s forming." Erosion can damage water quality by dumping fertilizers and pesticides into water supplies. It can also hurt crop yields by washing away rich topsoil.

Erosion was curtailed during the 1980s and 1990s when the federal government began requiring farmers who receive subsidies follow individually tailored soil conservation plans, Neuman writes. Environmentalists say stricter enforcement of those plans is needed "because high crop prices provide a strong incentive for farmers to plant as much ground as possible and to take fewer protective measures like grass buffer strips," Neuman writes. Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which released a report on soil erosion this week, said "You've got all these market forces and public policies and biofuel mandates and more severe storms. It's all coming together, and we're asleep at the switch." (Read more)

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