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February 25, 2020
As a participant in water discussions over the past dozen years, I have often heard the lamentation that there will never be enough money to solve our water quality problems.
This statement is generally couched as a call for more funding overall. I prefer to take it as a challenge to prioritize better.
Unfortunately, our ability to prioritize is hindered by doomsayers and their apocalyptic messages that solutions are unattainable or that they alone hold the solutions. In a way, environmentalism has become a commodity that attracts financial resources in proportion to the extent of the problem or perceived problem. This often undermines efforts to prioritize by diverting resources away from our most important challenges.
One side effect is what I describe as a grossly exaggerated description of the environmental effects of farming. And while the repeaters of these messages may not get out of bed each day determined to inflict harm on farmers, that is often a direct outcome of their activities.
Unnecessary or excessive regulations based on fear rather than science limit the ability of practitioners, in this case farmers, to innovate and address environmental challenges. We do face numerous environmental problems, some of our own making, some related to a changing climate, some imposed by external forces.
We also have a list of problems addressed whole or in part. When enough people agreed that soil erosion was a problem nearly a century ago, several things began to happen. The Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, was formed. Agricultural researchers and land grant university programs around soil grew. And farmers themselves took the bull by the horns and began to make changes that greatly reduced soil erosion. This work is ongoing and will likely never be finished, yet a major crisis was averted.
Today it seems that we face dozens of problems relating to farming and water and perhaps we do. However, the failure to prioritize results in a scattered approach and limited progress. That isn’t to say that progress isn’t happening, just that it may be too small or slow, especially on the big issues.
A 2001 book entitled “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” by Bjorn Lomborg expertly laid out the case for focusing our attention on the most important problems and only to the extent warranted by facts. It’s a good read, providing some balance to the usual sky-is-falling messages on many important topics, including food and hunger. I think those devoted to food production will appreciate his perspective.
Lomborg provides statistical evidence on global food production and the impact of agricultural research and the Green Revolution. He points out that while environmental impacts still exist and there is room for improvement, the environmental footprint of each unit of food produced is shrinking.
Lomborg also published a follow-up entitled “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.”
I will close with this quote from Stein W. Bie, director general of the International Service for National Agricultural Research, which is part of the foreword to “The Skeptical Environmentalist”:
“If we are developing a setting, based on flawed data analysis, where rich people let butterflies count more heavily in their budgets than hungry or sick people, then we are morally on very thin ice.”
Formo is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center.
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