Muddy rivers? Don’t blame farmers

Taken from The Land article, November 26, 2010

When people hear that I’m an advocate of high-yield farming to feed the world and protect the environment, assertions of farm runoff into the rivers are raised to support charges against modern farming methods.

Urban dwellers, even some of my rural neighbors, tell me their concerns about large-scale farming ruining our rivers “because the rivers are muddy.” They worry about even more soil erosion as farmers gear up to double food production over the next 40 years to feed a peak population of 9 billion people.

Certainly, the rivers in the world’s farming areas run brown. Muddy rivers generally mean the surrounding soils are good enough to farm. But the farmland sustains high yields despite the brown rivers. The mountain streams produce no food – even though the water coming down the mountainside travels at much higher and more dangerous speeds and run crystal clear. Why? The soil from the mountainsides has mostly eroded long since.

Fortunately, you don’t have to just take my word for that. A research team sponsored by Minnesota corn and soybean farmers just carried out an airborne laser scanning study of the Minnesota River above Mankato. The study found that 56 to 86 percent of the sediment in the river came from the natural erosion along the riverbanks – which has been going on for centuries.

Satish Gupta of the Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate was the lead author on the study. He said, “Some of these (river) banks are 150 feet high. They are very steep, not very stable, and they slough into the river.” Gupta also emphasized that the sediment load in any farm-country river will be a combination of bank erosion and runoff from the farm fields. The proportions vary with the soils, slope, rainfall patterns and farming systems. Thanks to the laws of hydraulics, however, any stream will get enough sediment to slow itself down, one way or the other – as it flows brown.

Gupta notes that in addition to bank erosion, the Minnesota River has also been impacted by a Corps of Engineers dredging program. The Corps takes 20,000 cubic yards of sediment per year out of the river to maintain a nine-foot depth for barges and towboats. The dredging makes the river flow faster and straighter. So does the extra water from urban rooftops, streets, parking lots and airports running into the river instead of infiltrating the surrounding soils. What happens to the dredged sediment? Beneficial public uses include wetland creation, bird nesting creation and upland habitat development.

Even though the Minnesota River study shows up to 86 percent of the sediment coming from bank erosion, best-farming practices are still helpful in minimizing crop and soillossBs. Notill farming, contour farming, grassed waterways and buffer strips at field edges all help reduce sediment loss. Fencing cattle from the creeks has also become a popular conservation policy in many areas (including my rural Shenandoah Valley.)

Continuous research and innovationhas made today’s farmers the most sustainable in history. Their high crop yields mean they need to farm less cropland to supply food demands. They restore the soil nutrients taken up by the growing crops with chemical fertilizers. This keeps the plant root structures strong, so they resist erosion. No-till farming by itself can reduce soil erosion from the fields by 65 to 95 percent. But don’t expect to ever see crystal clear rivers in good farming country.

This commentary was submitted by Dennis Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and the director for the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at P. 0. Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to

U.S. cannot afford ethanol subsidies

THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE | Last update: December 12, 2010 – 4:53 PM

‘I‘m Al Gore, and I’m an alcoholic.”

No, that’s not exactly how the former vice president began his recent mea culpa on alternative energy. But he admitted he had an unwise dependence on alcohol — corn-based ethanol as an ingredient in auto fuel, to be precise — and tried to steer others from the same course.

Gore’s dependence was not physiological but political. He backed federal support of the industry as a member of Congress because he wanted to win the votes of farmers in his home state of Tennessee and– when he ran for president — in Iowa. “It is not good policy to have these massive subsidies,” he says, now that he no longer aspires to elected office.

Maybe his admission has started something. Even many current politicians are swearing off the stuff.

It’s not every day that California Democrat Barbara Boxer, one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate, joins forces with Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, one of the most conservative. But they and 15 other senators signed a letter calling the existing 45-cent-per-gallon federal subsidy to ethanol fuel and the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol “fiscally irresponsible and environmentally unwise.” They oppose renewal of the two programs, which are scheduled to expire at the end of this year.

Yet there’s talk that an extension of the subsidy, and even a boost in the tariff, could be included in the tax deal reached by President Obama and Republican leaders. That would be a terrible mistake.

The fiscal tab of the federal tax credit comes to about $6 billion a year, which is more than the entire savings from the president two-year freeze on federal civilian pay. The more dire our fiscal predicament grows, the harder it is to justify this special-interest expense.

Then there are the environmental questions. Ethanol is actually worse than ordinary gasoline when it comes to some pollutants. True, it does generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions — but that savings could be canceled out if forests are cut down to expand corn production, because trees absorb so much carbon dioxide. Some estimates also suggest it takes more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than the gallon contains, making the whole exercise pointless.

The excuse for this favor to corn farmers and ethanol producers is that it reduces our dependence on foreign oil. But the effect is modest at best. In 1997, the General Accounting Office (now called the Government Accountability Office) said that “ethanol’s potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security.”

If reducing our reliance on foreign oil producers were truly the goal of federal policy, the government wouldn’t be so intent on keeping out foreign ethanol. The high duty on imported ethanol, noted the 17 senators, “discourages transportation fuel imports from Brazil, India, Australia and other sugar-producing countries, and leads to more oil and gasoline imports.”

In better fiscal times, it was easier to excuse our leaders for having their fun doling out subsidies for ethanol and protecting its makers from competition. But it’s time for the party to end.