The debate over clean water protections is missing an obvious answer in the way we grow our food.
I’ve been watching as the media covers the new “Navigable Waters Protection Rule,” which was recently finalized by the Trump administration.
The rule has been the subject of much debate. The divide most notably falls between two groups: farmers and environmentalists.
As a farmer for over four decades, my question is: why must these groups be at odds with each other? The answer is, they don’t.
The Navigable Waters Protection Rule was finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on January 23, 2020. The new rule changes the parameters of the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, narrowing the definition of “waters of the United States” by removing streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water that only run during a rain or snowmelt event.
These rollbacks threaten protections for more than half of the nation’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams, which eventually flow to rivers and lakes that provide drinking water for millions of people.
The rule is seen as a win for us farmers, allowing more regulatory flexibility and clarifying the reach of the EPA on individual farms. Environmentalists, on the other hand, oppose the rule, stating that weakening clean water protections is an egregious gutting of the Clean Water Act that endangers everyone.
Why are farmers forced into working in opposition to environmentalists when it comes to issues like clean water? Instead of regulating industry to appease one group over the other, there is a third option: overhauling our agricultural system.
At Rodale Institute, we are working on just the kind of solution that the Navigable Waters Protection Rule pretends is impossible. Our Watershed Impact Trial, being conducted in collaboration with Stroud Water Research Center and funded by the William Penn Foundation, researches the connection between farm management practices and water quality, and how changing the way we farm can have a significant impact on water.
On 40 acres of sloped land in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the Watershed Impact Trial compares four different crop management systems commonly found in today’s agricultural system. The goal of the trial is to understand agricultural runoff, the soil and chemicals that wash off farm fields and make their way to our waterways. By tracking the residue of pesticides, fertilizers, soil, and other contaminants found in creeks and streams, researchers can tell the relative effects of each management system on water quality.
We know what’s at stake: when agricultural chemicals and fertilizers run off into waterways, it can cause an unusual growth of algae that depletes oxygen in the aquatic system, creating “dead zones” devoid of life. Currently, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico covers more than 8,500 square miles. The destruction doesn’t just hurt wildlife. The runoff from farms threatens livelihoods, and our own health by contaminating the drinking water we need to survive.
From my years in farming, I know firsthand: no farmer wants to contribute to the degradation of water. Water is a critical resource that is just as essential for the business of farming as it is for human life.
Despite this fact, clean water protections are often marketed to farmers as an overreach of government that would mandate management practices that would cost more and be less effective. This directly pits the interests of environmentalists working to protect clean water against the interests of farmers trying to make a living on their land.
However, Rodale Institute’s research shows that protecting our precious resources doesn’t have to mean losing a livelihood. Implementing regenerative farming practices like cover crops, no-till strategies, and crop rotation, as well as going organic, have been shown to actually increase profitability on farms while simultaneously protecting water quality, by reducing costs on herbicides and heavy machinery while receiving a premium price for the product.
These practices improve the health of the soil by returning necessary nutrients like nitrogen back into the ground, as well as trapping carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Soil that has constant cover crop growth, is not broken up by tillage, and is given time to recover from planting holds together better than conventionally managed soil, reducing the risk of soil running off into waterways and bringing along chemicals, fertilizer, and other harmful contaminants.
Our Farming Systems Trial has shown that regenerative organic agriculture produces crop yields that are competitive with conventional after a transition period, as well as being shown to perform better in times of extreme weather events like drought. Because organic farming uses no chemicals, the risk of waterway contamination by these products is nonexistent. Regenerative organic practices actively improve the health of the soil rather than degrade it, leading to less runoff and erosion, fewer energy and fuel-intensive practices, and fewer carbon emissions.
Regenerative organic agriculture holds the key to making farming even more environmentally friendly without farmers sacrificing their way of life.
Why, then, must we pit farmers against the environmentalists that share their goals? It is long past time that we stop portraying farming and environmentalism as competing interests.
Farmers are undoubtedly stewards of the land—in order to feed the world, we have to have fertile soil, clean water, safe air, and abundant biodiversity. Why, then, must we pit farmers against the environmentalists that share their goals? It is long past time that we stop portraying farming and environmentalism as competing interests.
Regenerative organic agriculture can cross this divide, supporting farmers both financially and environmentally while actively improving the natural resources that farmers build their livelihoods on.
Rolling back protections to our clean water isn’t the answer. The answer to the debate over clean water is treating our farms—and our farmers—better by giving them the tools they need to be as successful as possible. When we come together and commit to sharing a goal, we have the power to heal the world.
This article originally appeared in Food Tank, February 2020.