How the marketplace is driving clean water solutions

BoyMomDrinkFtn_Photos.com_87822780_4CC_RFFederal and state governments aren’t doing enough to keep polluted runoff from reaching America’s waterways. That’s the conclusion the Environmental Protection Agency – aka the federal government – has reached in a new report from the office of its inspector general.

Anyone surprised?

Government has tried to reign in nutrient pollution for decades, only to watch dead zones persist in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just last month, a toxic brew of urban and agricultural runoff shut down Toledo’s water for two days. Seven weeks later, many of the city’s half million residents are still afraid to drink what’s coming out of the tap.

Relying on regulators to shoulder all the responsibility for cleaning up our lakes, rivers and bays is short sighted. Government can set standards, but the private sector – the farmers, industries and consumers who rely on agriculture for food, energy and jobs – can move more swiftly, and they’re already making headway.

Private sector takes the lead

The U.S. grain supply chain has made remarkable progress in tackling the problem of fertilizer overuse, which is a major contributor to climate instability and the type of water pollution that paralyzed Toledo. Of all commodity crops grown in the United States, grains – particularly corn – use the most fertilizer.

In the past year alone, businesses like Walmart, General Mills, Coca-Cola and Smithfield have developed initiatives to cut fertilizer pollution out of their grain products. Together, these companies represent 30 percent of North America’s food and beverage sales. They recognize that fertilizer pollution is a supply chain risk that affects their bottom line.

To meet their demand, farmers and agribusiness are developing programs to maximize fertilizer efficiency on their crops and increase the supply of “clean” grains. It makes good business sense for farmers, who spend nearly a quarter of their operating costs on fertilizer. They want to produce more with less.

We estimate that actions taken by these supply chain players during the past year will improve fertilizer efficiency on more than 10 million acres across the country. Think about that. In one year, the private sector committed to reducing fertilizer pollution on 10 million acres.

Getting to the tipping point

The EPA has set a goal of shrinking the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent to get it to a more manageable size. Research by EDF scientist Eileen McClellan shows us how to get there.

  • By simply improving fertilizer management on all cropland in the Mississippi River Basin, we can get almost a third of the way to EPA’s goal with no regulation.
  • Combining improved fertilizer management with cover crops on the same cropland can get us two-thirds of the way there.
  • By adding filter practices such as strategically place wetlands to the mix, we can get all the way there without significantly affecting agricultural production.

The one-third milestone in right in front of us. We’ll need to do some more thinking on cover crops and filter practices before we reach the tipping point. But the marketplace is motivated and the momentum is there.

With the government setting goals and the private sector in the driver’s seat, cutting pollution can improve farmers’ productivity and our economic well-being.

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