Recently I attended a soil health conference in Ames, Iowa. At the noon lunch, Dr. John Lawrence of Iowa State University, addressed the challenges of improving soil conservation and water quality. Dr. Lawrence commented that achieving the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy are probably equivalent to the difficulty of putting a man on the moon. After hearing Dr. Lawrence’s remark, I thought I would do some research.
On May 25, 1961, before a special joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced his dramatic and ambitious goal to send an American safely to the moon. Just 8 short years later, the goal was achieved, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface. Adjusting for inflation, Apollo 11 would cost $2,348,987,602.18 in today’s dollars. Even rounding up, that is less than $3 billion dollars for the eight-year mission.
To put that 8-year accomplishment into perspective, conservation goals have been in place for 45-80 years and have yet to be achieved. In 1935, the Soil Conservation Act was signed – that’s over 80 years ago. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the first major law to address water pollution, was signed in 1948. Amended in 1972, the law became commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Let’s compare the cost and outcomes of an 8-year moon-shot mission to an 80 year-old soil conservation goal. Remember, in today’s dollars, going to the moon cost a little less than $3 billion. Between 1935 and 2010, USDA provided $294 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Furthermore, between 1990 and 2016, EPA-319 provided an additional $5.4 billion, in today’s dollars. These figures do not include any state funds or county funds. And last but not least, it does not include farmers’ contributions, which may amount to more than all of the public funding sources added together.
Really? Can we compare the soil and water conservation cost and outcomes to something equivalent to putting a man on the moon? The two are not even comparable. Even still, maybe we in U.S. agriculture should feel the same urgency that NASA felt in the 1960’s when our nation’s pride was on the line. After all this time and money, we aren’t even close to accomplishing satisfactory soil and water conservation. Is it more important to put a man on the moon or ensure our ability to raise food, feed, and fiber into the future?
Thanks for pointing out the errors in my analogy. When I make that statement I usually add that we reached the moon nearly 50 years ago. You are correct that soil and water conservation is more expensive than space travel. But, I still contend that it is not rocket science. We know of many practices that are effective in improving soil health, keeping it in the field and protecting water quality, but the surface area is large, practices expensive and they compete for resourses in they state andbon the farm. Also, unlike a moon landing it can be difficult to know when you are done.
I probably was to simplistic to compare the 45% reduction of N and P leaving our landscape to the moon landing. Yet, I am still confident that the goal can be achieved with appropriate funding and a similar dedication that President Kennedy and NASA put toward the moon.
The State of Iowa owes you a big “thank you” for your commitment to soil and water conservation. Your leadership is commendable. The job before all Iowa agriculturalists is daunting both financially and technically. I agree that soil and water conservation is not rocket science. In some respects it might be harder. We know the solutions, but it will take the engagement of thousands of farmers and landowners. Additionally we have a biological system to deal with. But you know that.
I agree it is hard to put in words how difficult it will be to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, but sending a man to the moon might be the best comparison I can think of.
To both Tom’s
I just read a recent survey of farmers asking about Conservation practices they performed in 2015 and again in 2016. Though it did show a slight movement towards more Conservation practices the overwhelming fact remains that over 40% of those who completed the report have no intention of using any type of Soil Conservation practice. Here lies the challenge (putting a man on the moon). It is hard to understand, after the research that has been done, that we as farmers are not willing to change our farming practices from what our great grandfathers did when they first started tilling the soil.
I agree Dwight. We have a long way to go to make the voluntary approach successful. I think conservation farmers need to apply peer pressure to those farmers who are doing nothing.