Water pollution plummeted after Denmark tied farm runoff to subsidies
Bay scientists tout fertilizer budgets, which pay farmers only if they reduce nutrients going onto their crops
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Imagine a scenario in which farmers would only receive government subsidies if they followed a strict fertilizer budget for their farms. Imagine also that, like all good budgets, theirs required a little belt-tightening, so they could only apply enough crop nutrients for 90 percent of their current yield.
Imagine, then, that the farmers got on board, and submitted to regulatory audits to make sure they were staying within their budgets. What, then, would happen to the water-fouling nitrogen and phosphorus coming from agriculture?
Denmark has an answer. Less than 20 years after it first began an effort to reduce farm runoff through nutrient budgeting, the country reported a 50 percent drop in nitrogen and a nearly 90 percent drop in phosphorus levels in its streams and rivers. Major algae blooms decreased. Water quality improved.
And the farmers? Danish ham and bacon remain prized all over the world, particularly in the pork-loving countries of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
Scientists in the Chesapeake Bay have been looking at nutrient budgets for close to three decades. But to date, no state has implemented one. Tom Simpson, former longtime coordinator of agriculture programs for the Chesapeake Bay Program, said he knew of no such budgets in the United States.
Nevertheless, the idea continues to percolate. During last year’s Chesapeake Bay Summit on Maryland Public Television, Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, advocated trying nutrient budgeting. Tying government subsidies to a farmer’s environmental performance would provide “a real built-in incentive” to reduce fertilizer applications, he argued.
Bay watershed states are already working, through both voluntary and regulatory programs, to reduce farm pollution. Maryland farmers are required to file nutrient management plans, as well as many farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia. But those plans focus on maximizing yield, Simpson points out, not environmental protection. And no state or federal agency ties its payments for crop insurance or even for conservation best management practices to how well a farm follows its nutrient management plan or how much pollution is reduced.
“This is something I’ve talked about for years,” Boesch said. “Here, you can be penalized for not submitting (a plan), but there is no penalty for over-application.”
Part of the reason is that the state inspectors often don’t know if a farmer is over-applying. The Maryland Department of Agriculture inspects about 10 percent of the state’s farms every year, and even then it’s hard to tell what a farmer had done in the past, as the inspections mostly focus on paperwork.
Simpson, too, has been talking about nutrient budgets for years and is particularly interested in Denmark farmers’ willingness to accept the possibility of lower yields. In 2002, he and Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, tried to get a pilot program into the federal Farm Bill that would have farmers apply 15–20 percent less nitrogen to their corn. If growers experienced income losses, the program would have paid them up to $20 million cumulatively to make up for it. Called the Yield Reserve Program, the proposal didn’t make the final bill.
Simpson said he was disappointed, particularly because there was a comparable provision in the 1985 Farm Bill, he said, that set limits on soil erosion. He called it one of modern agriculture’s greatest environmental success stories.
Under the Highly Erodible Land Conservation Compliance Provisions, if a farm lost soil to erosion, the grower had to work with consultants to reduce the loss or face a cut in federal subsidies. The original 1991 deadline for compliance got extended, and by the late 1990s, soil erosion had been reduced by a “huge amount,” Simpson said. And though significant, the reduction “was only half as much as it would have been” if the federal government had been stricter about compliance, he added.
“I actually think that doing a simple balance is a great educational tool. But you probably need [an] independent auditor to do the sampling, not the state agriculture department,” Simpson said. “If the balances are honest, you begin identifying what your excess is. We’re so late now that I hate saying [phase it in over] 10 years, but that may actually be a realistic time to implement something like this.”
Swanson agreed, saying that the Bay restoration effort began with broad, sweeping changes — a rockfish moratorium, a phosphate ban for detergents — but now must drill down to effect widespread change.
“Now we are looking more and more at the individual county level, farm level, municipality level. From that, we can consider the cumulative effects of small changes,” she said. “So it makes sense that we are evolving in that direction.”
Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, cautioned Boesch at last year’s Bay summit that the nutrient budgets would raise the costs of production and put Maryland farmers at a competitive disadvantage with their counterparts in other states.
“Maryland is such a small state when we’re producing food,” said Hoot, who’s also director of the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts. “When we produce food, we can’t put an extra price tag on it because our consumers can buy from everywhere else.”
Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, predicted that agriculture interests would oppose any proposal that might cut into a farmer’s profits or threaten their government assistance.
“I can’t imagine anyone in the farm community would be supportive of those ideas, but we haven’t had any discussions about it at this point,” she said. She added that Maryland doesn’t typically take direction from foreign countries on agriculture, and is “more focused on what works here.”
But Denmark has much in common with Maryland. It is about the same size — the country has a little more land area; the state a bit larger population. Both are traditionally progressive politically but have tacked more conservative in recent elections. And they both have large animal industries — chickens in Maryland and hogs in Denmark. Hog production there employs 60,000 people and represents 6 percent of the nation’s total export value.
Maryland only took regulatory action to curb farm pollution because of a perceived crisis. The state’s nutrient management law passed in 1998, after a series of fish kills on the Eastern Shore and reports of ill health among some fishermen. Scientists initially blamed the fish kills on a toxin-emitting dinoflagellate, Pfiesteria piscicida, though later research has suggested another similar microorganism, Karlodinium veneficum. In either case, the harmful algal blooms hurting fish were connected to excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the waterways, which many believed came from poultry manure.
Denmark experienced a similar wake-up call. In 1986, algae blooms in the Kattegat, a stretch of water between the North and Baltic Seas, were killing the nation’s legendary lobsters. Scientists traced the problem to acute hypoxia from excess nutrients, which were coming from both sewage and farms.
Over the next decade, every Danish city with more than 5,000 residents had to reduce its nitrogen and phosphorus loads. Most did so by installing enhanced wastewater treatment, just as Maryland municipalities did after the flush fee was passed a dozen years ago.
But by the 1990s, the Danish government turned its attention to farms. It put in the rule that farmers could only apply 90 percent of the fertilizer needed to get maximum yields, and tied their subsidies to following their budgets.
“In those days, the farmers were basically taken by surprise,” said Jacob Carstensen, a marine scientist from Aarhus University, who has studied the issue. “They were trying to keep their nutrients low, because there was really an outcry about the whole situation. Of course, the farmers objected, but their objections were not that strong. If you have a production, and you are basically wasting your nutrients, you need to do a more sound management.”
The farmers got something out of it, too: more information. Carstensen said the government invested in research to optimize yields while reducing fertilizer applications, which saved farmers money in the long run.
But as has happened in Maryland, hard economic times in Denmark have brought retrenchment. The recent Danish election brought in a more right-leaning government, which has rolled back the nutrient management regulations.
The farmers asked for the rollback because of geopolitical machinations. Danish ham sales sagged after Russia curbed imports in a diplomatic feud with the European Union after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
To recoup some of their losses, Danish farmers asked for more flexibility with yields and regulations. Though the objections from the environmental community ultimately forced out the Danish Environment and Food Minister, Eva Kjer Hansen, the rollbacks remain in place. It is too soon to tell how that will affect the water.
Carstensen said Denmark’s successes were hard-won, but would be tough to replicate in the United States because of this nation’s history and political traditions.
“You have to tell the story to the farmers and make them believe that you can do more efficient nutrient management; that it will benefit the production,” Carstensen said. “Overall, I think culturally, I think Americans are much different from Europeans. I think it’s much more difficult to regulate Americans.”
About the Chesapeake Bay Summit
After more than three decades of effort and billions of dollars spent, the Chesapeake Bay continues to suffer with poor water quality, and fisheries are a shadow of what they were in the estuary’s heyday.
In 2015, Maryland Public Television invited a panel of experts to its studio in Owings Mills to air some ideas for how to overcome obstacles to the Bay’s restoration and make it more effective. The resulting special broadcast, The Chesapeake Bay Summit: Charting a Course, was produced in partnership with the Bay Journal.
Now, on the anniversary of that pioneering summit, this issue of Bay Journal takes a closer look at a few of those ideas.
- What if the Bay’s farmers were put on “nutrient budgets,” with all government payments they receive contingent on them sticking within strict limits of how much fertilizer they could spread on their fields? That’s had some success reducing runoff in Denmark.
- Instead of imposing more Bay cleanup rules and requirements, what if more effort were put into enforcing the ones we already have, holding polluters and governments alike accountable when they fail to comply? Read the article.
- What the Bay really needs is a stronger environmental ethic among the people who live in its vast watershed. We could learn from the Haudenosaunee, native Americans whose tradition calls for basing their actions on how they’ll affect the future seven generations from now. Read the article.
Much of the discussion at that first Bay Summit focused on agriculture, the leading source of the nutrient and sediment pollution impairing the Chesapeake’s waters.
In April 2016, MPT and the Bay Journal have teamed up again to convene a new summit. It will focus on one of the knottiest problems confronting the Chesapeake — the watershed’s growing population and the impact that new development has on the estuary’s health. The hourlong discussion will be broadcast live during Chesapeake Bay Week at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27.
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