Incentivizing Ecosystem Services: Agroecology as a Solution to Agricultural Nonpoint Source Water Pollution

by Lizzie Fainberg

Common agricultural practices in the United States contribute a significant amount of pollution to the environment. Agriculture is a leading cause of water pollution in the United States. Large farm operations across the nation commonly use large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides to increase yield to the maximum extent possible. This pollution causes detrimental effects to our communities, land, and marine life. The Clean Water Act (CWA) and grant programs contained in the Farm Bill are the primary federal mechanisms for curbing agricultural water pollution. However, these structures have not sufficiently addressed agriculture’s impact on the nation’s water resources. To make meaningful progress in lowering water pollution, the federal government should begin incentivizing agroecological practices that both allow farmers to keep their land in production and actively work to reduce excess nutrients, pesticide waste, and erosion.

The CWA, born from the 1972 amendments to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, is the most prominent federal legal tool for controlling water quality in the United States. However, the CWA does not address agricultural pollution in a meaningful way. The CWA largely regulates the discharge of point source pollution, or pollution from a discernible location such as a drain pipe, into navigable waters. Any individual or entity who intends to discharge pollutants must enter into the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

While the NPDES program has been successful in reducing many kinds of water pollution, it has had a negligible effect on agricultural pollution. This is because most agricultural pollution, under the CWA, is considered nonpoint source pollution. Rather than originating from a single point source, agricultural pollution is often in the form of storm water runoff. Rain, irrigation, or snow melt will carry excess fertilizers and pesticides off the farm and into nearby waters. The CWA defines nonpoint source pollution but does not establish any concrete regulatory controls for it. This leaves little to no federal mandates that require farmers to curb wastes that leave their operations and enter nearby waterways.

Further, the federal government has created a number of grant programs to incentivize farmers to preserve or enhance water quality. While these programs have their benefits, a number of them, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, simply encourage farmers to take their land out of agricultural production. Others, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, do offer farmers compensation in exchange for implementing ecological management systems. However, funding for these programs is limited. In 2014, the USDA received a budget of $157.5 billion. USDA funding for sustainable agriculture projects received a budget of $203 million while projects advancing agroecological practices only received $44 million. The inadequacy of current USDA programs focused on sustainability is clear. Agriculture remains the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. According to the EPA, 46% of the nation’s rivers and streams are in poor condition. Nitrogen and phosphorus, two main agricultural inputs, are named as the leading causes. In order to make real progress in regenerating the nation’s waters, the federal government must take real action. A potential solution here is more aggressively applying agroecological practices to federal incentive programs.

Agroecology is “the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.” The goal of agroecology is to integrate agricultural operations with the surrounding ecosystem to decrease detrimental impacts to the environment as much as possible. Ideally, an agroecological system will recycle its outputs (excess nutrients, materials, etc.) to reduce otherwise externalized wastes. Realistically, common agricultural practices in the United States are not divorced from the ecosystems in which they exist. One practical method to encourage farmers to adopt agroecological practices is through payments for ecosystem services (PES). Under a PES approach, those who benefit from ecosystem services will pay farmers to implement these services. While this is similar to the Conservation Stewardship Program, a PES system is based on demand-driven transactions. This will help communities to place a realistic value on ecosystem services rather than holding farmers to a subsidy that is otherwise divorced from the market.

Congress and the USDA have slowly been moving toward encouraging more sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices. However, these efforts have not been able to counterbalance the vast amounts of agricultural water pollution. In order to make a difference and clean our nation’s waters, the federal government should both require agroecological practices and provide real, available incentives for farmers to enact these practices.

Sources

1. J.B. RUHL, AGRICULTURE AND ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: PAYING FARMERS TO DO THE NEW RIGHT THING 241 (Mary Jane Angelo et al. eds., 2013).
2. MARY JANE ANGELO AND JAMES F. CHOATE, AGRICULTURE AND THE CLEAN WATER ACT 147 (Mary Jane Angelo et al. eds., 2013).
3. F. CAPORALI, LAW AND AGROECOLOGY: A TRANSDISCIPLINARY GUIDE 5 (Massimo Monteduro et al. eds., 2015).
4. Counting on Agroecology: Why We Should Invest More in the Transition to Sustainable Agriculture, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS (2015), https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/11/ucs-counting-on-agroecology-2015.pdf.
5. Farm Bill Programs and Grants, NATIONAL SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE COALITION, http://sustainableagriculture.net/publications/grassrootsguide/farm-bill-programs-and-grants/ (last visited March 20, 2019).
6. NATIONAL WATER QUALITY INVENTORY: REPORT TO CONGRESS, U.S. ENVT’L PROTECTION AGENCY 2 (2017), available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-12/documents/305brtc_finalowow_08302017.pdf.