As Presidential Candidates Prepare for Ohio Debate, Farmers Need a New Vision

October 11, 2019 | 12:50 pm
Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

UPDATE, 10/16/19: The moderators of the fourth Democratic debate inexplicably failed to ask a single question about the climate crisis, much less dig into policy solutions—like climate-friendly farming—that are desperately needed to address it. That’s not just disappointing, it’s unacceptable. Here at UCS, my colleagues and I will continue to insist that policymakers and journalists take these issues seriously, and that candidates for office tell the American public what they plan to do for farmers, rural communities, and all of us.

It has been a very bad year for Ohio’s farmers. Across the state, they were unable to plant crops on nearly 1.5 million acres this past spring due to unrelenting rainfall and flooding. The Buckeye State has also been hard-hit by the Trump administration’s trade war, with the price of soybeans—Ohio’s most financially valuable agricultural commodity—plummeting. At the same time, intensive commodity farming has taken a heavy toll on the state’s water resources. And growing just one or two crops, as many Ohio farmers do, leaves them and our food supply vulnerable in an erratic climate future.

But changing the way farmers do business—starting with their soil—can help solve all these problems. And when the fourth Democratic presidential debate kicks off in Westerville, Ohio on Tuesday, it sure would be great to hear about the candidates’ plans to make healthy soil a reality.

The life-support system beneath our feet

Like a person, soil can be healthy or not. Healthy soil is full of life, including beneficial insects and microbes that turn organic material (including, sometimes, underwear) into nutrients available for growing plants. For farmers, such rich, living soil promotes healthy crops and acts as a sponge, protecting against floods and droughts and limiting runoff that leads to water pollution. Healthy soil also keeps more carbon in the ground, helping to combat climate change.

But although soil isn’t just dirt, today’s farming systems—and the government policies that drive them—routinely treat it that way. Instead of keeping the soil covered and protected from the elements year-round, typical US farm fields today are planted only with summer crops and left bare and plowed up in between.

The results are devastating. Recent estimates suggest that the nation’s farms lose a billion-plus tons of soil to erosion each year. And when soil leaves the farm, that means valuable resources are lost to farmers—the soil itself, along with fertilizers, wash away and pollute the nation’s waterways. Agricultural nitrogen pollution alone costs the United States some $157 billion per year and contributes to an annual Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” that was nearly the size of New Jersey this past summer (and would have been bigger had a hurricane not broken it up). Cleanup costs often fall to taxpayers.

Heavy reliance on one or two crops, plus plowing, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides also can wring the life out of the soil. And damaged, unhealthy soil can’t drain or hold water well, leaving farms, nearby communities, and ecosystems more vulnerable to both floods and droughts, problems that are only getting more common and extreme. Thus, damage to farm soils puts our future food supply at risk. Without healthy soil as a buffer against weather disasters, accelerating crop failures and livestock losses may trigger ripple effects, including increased food prices and greater food insecurity.

O-H-I-O needs to save its S-O-I-L

All of this is very relevant in a state like Ohio, where the current model of farming has led to a lot of problems. Of Ohio’s nearly 14 million farm acres in 2018, more than 61 percent were dedicated to just two crops: soybeans and corn. Soybeans alone were planted on more than 5 million acres across the state, making that crop its most valuable. But the Trump administration’s trade war has hit soybean growers hard. With the loss of markets and a glut of beans, prices tanked, and agricultural economists predict they’ll remain low for the next several years, leading to a period of lower farm incomes. (And incomes were already low.)

Meanwhile, on the shores of Lake Erie, the city of Toledo has struggled in recent years to contend with toxic algal blooms that can poison its drinking water in the summer. This year, as result of unprecedented flooding and nutrient runoff, the Lake Erie bloom was massive—covering more than 620 square miles at its peak. The situation has gotten so bad that in a recent poll, 59 percent of registered voters in northwestern Ohio said they support new regulations to prevent fertilizers and manure in farm runoff from flowing into the lake and causing future such blooms.

All of this is beginning to look like vicious cycle. Instead of healthy soil buffering Ohio’s farm fields from the effects of heavy rain this year, the opposite happened. Historic rainfall totals throughout the spring and early summer—did a number on the state’s farm soils, says an agricultural consultant who has been studying the results on the ground: Long periods of saturation starved soil microbes and other organisms of oxygen, leached out vital nutrients, and compacted the soil. And when summer heat came along, that soil baked to the consistency of concrete.

And without change on the ground, the situation will only get worse. In Ohio and across the US Midwest, worsening climate change is expected to bring more weather disasters and extreme heat, and thus more damage to soil.

What can the next president do about soil?

Employing practices that build a healthy soil base can make farmers more profitable and more resilient, while keeping water clean and storing more carbon in the ground. But many farmers are trapped in a system of policies and market incentives that reward them for practices that wreck the soil.

Which brings me back to Tuesday’s presidential debate. New public policies are desperately needed to drive change—what we saw in the last farm bill wasn’t nearly enough. With climate change clearly upon us, the federal government must take bold action to equip farmers in Ohio and across the nation with the tools they need to help themselves, their communities, and the future of our food. Farmers are calling for these solutions, and in the presidential election year ahead, every candidate from any party (or no party) should commit to advance them. But in the three Democratic debates we’ve seen so far, the candidates haven’t been asked about food or farming (though some have mentioned it), and the moderators have allowed precious few minutes for discussion of the climate crisis.

Cleveland’s weekly Scene newspaper got it right last month, writing about disaster aid for the state’s flooded-out farmers as a band-aid, not a long-term solution. As one farmer put it, “What we need is a more sort of systemic, long-term and enduring policy that allows farmers to compete in the market…and gain revenue from the sales of crops rather than government subsidies.”

Soil should be the foundation for such a systemic farm policy.

And when presidential hopefuls gather to debate at Otterbein University just outside Columbus on Tuesday, I hope the moderators from the New York Times and CNN also get it right.

What you can do: Tell the debate moderators that climate solutions, including soil health, are topics of critical importance to Ohio and the nation, and must be addressed in this presidential debate. Send the moderators a message now.