What Our 50-State Scorecard Says About Farming and Water Pollution (and What the Farm Bill Should Do About It)

June 21, 2018 | 3:07 pm
Photo: Tim McCable, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Last week, my colleagues and I launched a super-cool data tool on the UCS website. The 50-State Food System Scorecard compiles loads of publicly available data dealing with the health and sustainability of food and farming, and ranks the states on their performance in various data categories and overall.

Finding and evaluating a critical mass of data to say something reasonably comprehensive about each state’s food system—from farm to fork—was a big project, and its lead scientist Marcia DeLonge summarized how we did it and why we bothered in a post last week. So today, I want to home in on just one of the aspects we looked at.

We called it “ecosystem impacts,” which really means how farming affects critical natural resources like our water and soil, as well as our climate system.

We evaluated this impact by considering several kinds of indicators. First, we looked at existing data showing farming’s climate implications, with indicators including percentage of total climate emissions from agriculture, climate emissions per farm acre, and carbon loss or gain from land-use change and forestry. We also looked at data revealing agriculture’s impact on soil erosion. And finally, we incorporated data on water quality, with indicators ranging from nutrient loss (read: fertilizer runoff) per land area; percentage of surface waters that are impaired (the EPA’s term for rivers, lakes, and bays polluted beyond applicable water quality standards); and percentage of the state’s area with groundwater contaminated by high levels of nitrate, a common water pollutant for which agriculture is a major source.

As you can see on this map of state rankings in the “reduced ecosystem impact” category (one of nearly a dozen available maps), the 10 best performers are an eclectic collection of states from all corners of the country: Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan.



And digging a little deeper into the data (which you can do yourself by downloading a data spreadsheet from our methodology document), we get a clearer picture of the states in which the water resources people depend on—for drinking, fishing, and swimming—are the least negatively affected by pollution strongly linked to agriculture. The data showed that Montana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota had the lowest groundwater nitrate pollution. Maryland and Wyoming had the smallest fraction of surface waters impaired, and Wyoming had the least nutrient loss.

Other states didn’t do so well.

Another year, another Corn Belt-fueled ‘dead zone’

Let’s look at the worst performers according to the data we have for nutrient loss in particular. They are New Jersey (50), Kentucky (49), Missouri (48), Louisiana (47), Iowa (46), Ohio (45), Indiana (44), and Illinois (43). Those last four clustered near the bottom are at the center of the Midwestern Corn Belt, a region that has long sent massive amounts of nutrient runoff to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Every year, that runoff contributes to a dead zone just off the Gulf coast, in which nutrient-fueled algae blooms rob the shallow waters of oxygen, killing or driving out other life forms. This year will be no exception. According to a recent press release from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by August we can expect to see a Gulf dead zone that is about the size of Connecticut. That would be about 4 percent larger than the average over the past 31 years.

Unfortunately, that’s the good news. Because last year’s dead zone was even bigger—at least the size of New Jersey. And no matter which Eastern seaboard state you compare it to, it’s bad. In their 2018 prediction, the scientists at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (who partner with NOAA annually) note that, if they’re right, the dead zone will be about three and a half times the size of the federal goal set in 2001 and reiterated in 2008.

“Efforts to reduce the nitrate loading have not yet demonstrated success at the watershed scale,” they conclude, sounding glum, for scientists.

Big problems need big solutions

In fact, the efforts to reduce the problem to date haven’t exactly been monumental. Which brings me back to our scorecard and two of its other data categories.

We looked at the implementation of farming practices that can reduce farming’s contribution to water pollution and other negative ecosystem impacts. These practices include adopting no-till (aka no plowing) cropping systems; planting cover crops; using organic, rotational grazing, and other innovative techniques; and taking less-productive farmland out of cropping or grazing altogether. Ranking the states on these indicators produced a map that looks like this:



Comparing these rankings with the ecosystem impacts rankings is interesting. The four Corn Belt states that did poorly on water pollution measures above also rank low on conservation practices. But while one might expect states where sustainable farming practices have been implemented more widely would have better ecosystem outcomes, this is only sometimes true. Yes, New Hampshire and Maine each ranks in the top 5 in both categories. But then there’s a state like Maryland. Despite ranking #3 in implementation of conservation practices, it lags in terms of ecosystem impacts, coming in at #35.

The scorecard also ranks states according to federal dollars their farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders receive, through a variety of USDA programs, to study and implement soil-, climate-, and water-conserving agriculture.



This produces a different picture, though with some of the same states performing best (Vermont and New Hampshire) and worst (Arizona, Nevada, and Florida).

Because of the differences, comparing states across all three closely related farm sustainability categories is interesting, and there’s at least one state that stands out for me…

Iowa. The state is 49th for ecosystem impacts and 47th for implementation of conservation practices. But it finishes a surprising 15th in federal investment for sustainable agriculture. Now, you might be thinking, “doesn’t this mean those federal dollars just don’t work?” But I don’t think that’s the story here.

Instead, I think it’s that the scale of the problem is just so much bigger than the investments being made in solutions. Particularly in a state like Iowa, the beating heart of the Corn Belt and the epitome of the industrialized agriculture model. As the Des Moines Register had to acknowledge on the heels of last year’s huge Gulf dead zone, Iowa is a big part of that problem.

Of course, a growing number of the state’s farmers and agriculture researchers are working hard to refine and implement solutions. Researchers at Iowa State University, for instance, have developed an innovative crop rotation system that slashes fertilizer and pesticide use (and consequent runoff) while increasing yields. And the Practical Farmers of Iowa are implementing such methods one corn-and-soybean field at a time. Together, they’re changing the model. But system-wide change takes significant long-term investment, and generally speaking, the investment in sustainable agriculture in the United States has been pennies on the dollar.

Farmers want to be part of the solution—and Congress needs to support them

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that Congress is inching toward the finish line on a bitterly contested farm bill. While most of the controversy has centered around short-sighted efforts by House Republicans to gut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, lawmakers in both houses of Congress have also taken aim at important investments that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The USDA’s largest and most comprehensive working-land conservation program, CSP offers incentives and technical support for farmers to take up more sustainable practices on their land.

It’s not the first time CSP has been targeted for cuts. When Congress passed the last farm bill in 2014, they slashed the program by more than 20 percent. The result? By last summer, a USDA official told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate. That’s why, when the debate over the 2018 farm bill started ramping up last fall, UCS joined more than two dozen organizations in outlining collective conservation priorities that include a substantial increase in funding for CSP and other USDA programs. And our recent survey of farmers across seven states suggests that large majorities want the farm bill to make those investments.

But the bill that failed last month in the House (but is expected to get a re-vote any minute), did the opposite—it eliminated CSP altogether. And while the much better bipartisan bill on the Senate side takes steps to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of farm bill conservation programs, it would also trim the program’s allotted acres by another 12 percent. That’s the wrong direction.

Read more and take action on the farm bill today.