ASA members talk water security, part 3

Conserving “blue water,” using “green water” as efficiently as possible, recycling “grey water”: These keys to achieving water security for agriculture were discussed in part two of this three-part series. In this third and final interview, American Society of Agronomy (ASA) members Fred Vocasek, Rattan Lal, and Gary “Pete” Peterson talk about their ideas for getting more people, especially farmers, to actually take these steps. As with most things, it comes down to economics and the chance for people to make a decent living.

Before we discuss how to get more people to conserve water, can you describe what people are doing now?

Person holding crop residues in his hands

Rattan: Well, we talk about water-conserving practices such as no-till, residue-farming, mulching, and so forth. But the fact is that even in the United States the maximum area under these kinds of farming is about 30 percent at most. Even in Ohio where we have a no-till experiment going back to 1960—more than 50 years now—adoption of no-till is less than 30 percent, and in fact has declined.

And if you move to countries in Africa and Asia, there’s practically zero no-till or conservation agriculture (CA), even though that is where it is needed the most. The regions where CA is now being practiced are Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, North America, and Australia, but not in the developing countries of Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Why isn’t no-till being practiced in developing countries?

Rattan: There are several reasons. One is that the same crop residues that we’re talking about as being important in water conservation have many other competing uses. In developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, crop residues are used for fodder, and for fencing and house construction. And more importantly, residues are used for cooking by many households. You’ve heard the story about the atmospheric brown cloud (ABC)? That originates from cooking by burning biomass, crop residues, and animal dung.

So unless those competing use requirements are met through policy interventions, through education, through incentives, these crop residues will not go back on the land. And if residues do not get back on the land, water does not get effectively conserved.

When you say “incentives,” what are you thinking of specifically?

Pete: Maybe Rattan and Fred won’t totally agree with this, but I think to get change you need to provide an economic incentive. For example, if we want people to stop using biomass for fodder in some of these cultures, they need to see that they can make a better living by leaving it on the land. In other words, everything relates back to the billfold. Or for the subsistence farmer it’s not the billfold, it’s just a better life. So, the trick is finding a way, whether it’s through policy or something else, to create that economic incentive. Because every farmer I’ve ever met in Colorado who has converted over to some of the practices we recommend will say they did it because they could make more money.

Fred: One of the tenets of management is “What gets paid, gets done.” For example, I’ve been in southwest Kansas for about 30 years and I’ve seen a huge change in irrigation systems or water management technology—let’s call it that. And several things have driven that: the increased cost of fuel, the increased cost of pumping. So it’s been somewhat economical to switch over to technologies that are more efficient.

Pete: Exactly. So, for example, if a government policy were in place that would encourage farmers to try a new technology that would be profitable—a seed grant or something, to get people going—that would be good. We don’t want programs that require public input of money forever and ever. They need to be pilot projects that get people started and let them realize the benefits. And then they can take it from there.

But what if these sort of natural economic incentives to adopt new technologies and practices don’t exist? What then?

Rattan: There are also direct payments to farmers. The question is whether that payment is in the form of a subsidy or if it can be a payment for what are called “ecosystem services.” For example, if we were to pay farmers to leave crop residues on the land, we would need to make sure the compensation was the same or even better than the money they would make selling residues to a company for combustion or conversion to cellulosic ethanol, making paper, or whatever else. And the justification for better compensation is because of the benefits or services: climate change mitigation, reduced water pollution and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, increased biodiversity in soil (which can make the soil disease-suppressive), and so forth.

So, subsidies have been very useful in the past, but we are moving away from that term, and saying “let’s compensate farmers for the good they do for the environment and the community as a whole.” And that payment for ecosystem services would be much more than a farmer would get for selling a ton of residue as a combustion material.

Pete: I agree with that totally. A subsidy is not a good thing.

Yound corn growing in crop residue

Rattan: It has a negative connotation. With payments for ecosystem services, you are rewarding farmers for the good they are doing. Then the question is: How do we reward them fairly, justly, and transparently?

And how would you answer that?

Rattan: Let me give you an example of fair and just. With so-called “geologic sequestration” of carbon where you inject carbon dioxide into the ground, the cost is—and I’m quoting The Economist from March 17, 2012—$600 to $800 per ton of carbon dioxide. That includes capturing carbon dioxide from a chimney, purifying or scrubbing it, compressing it, liquefying it, transporting it to the well, and then injecting at a high pressure. The total comes to somewhere around $600 to $800 per ton of carbon dioxide. Yet…when farmers signed contracts with the Chicago Climate Exchange, you know what the cost was? The maximum cost ever was $4 per ton of carbon.

That’s what I mean by an adequate and fair and just price. But that requires a policy intervention. That requires an assessment of the societal value of the ecosystem services of which I listed many: Reduction of hypoxia, sedimentation, and non-point source pollution; improvement in soil quality; aesthetics; making our soil drought-tolerant and climate resilient—many things. That’s why we need to talk to the policy makers.

Fred: Another thing is that the agronomist very often is absent from the table when those policy decisions are being made. So we’re trying to create some visibility for ourselves; for example, through the AAAS symposium last February.

So that’s the main goal of your Water Security for Agriculture Task Force, to open up the dialog between policy makers, agronomists, and agricultural scientists?

Fred: I think that’s one reasonable objective. The development of new knowledge and practices, and implementing them is another important one. One of the things I see with the American Society of Agronomy is that we’re in a unique position because we have scientists and researchers like Rattan and Pete, and then we also have Certified Crop Advisers, who I represent. Rattan and Pete are involved in developing knowledge through research, and as educators on a collegiate or extension level they pass knowledge along to their students. And then certified crop advisers and practitioners, who are toe-to-toe with the farmer, actually put that knowledge to work.

So, there’s vertical integration of knowledge—we go from the test tube to the field, if you will.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Rattan: I mentioned crop residues being used for cooking in Africa and Asia. But residues are also now being suggested for use in cooking in the United States, through cellulosic ethanol production. It’s the same thing, except in one case people convert the residues into fancy compounds and burn them, while others burn them directly.

And the end effect on soil and water resources is the same. Imagine if you take away tons of crop residues from the Midwestern United States and Great Plains and convert them into ethanol. Can you imagine what will happen to the land? That’s a threat for another Dust Bowl era. So, we need a strong dialog between the scientific community and policy makers, and a dialog between land managers and scientists and the policy makers. And education—right from primary and secondary school onward to the university—that teaches about stewardship of natural resources.

I have a saying that “grain is for the people, but the residues are for the land.” I think somehow we need to have policy makers, farmers, land managers, and the public realize the importance of that equity.

Read parts one and two