This week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced a proposal aimed at improving the state’s water quality by 25 percent by the year 2025. Given that water quality in the state is currently on track to only improve by about 8 percent by 2034, Dayton’s goal is respectfully ambitious. Yet we believe it is an extremely attainable target.
Without adding any new regulations, Dayton’s “25x’25” plan would rely on public engagement and diverse stakeholder collaboration bringing together local governments, farmers, scientists, business leaders and environmentalists. These partnerships will have the flexibility to devise the strategies and means needed to address water quality challenges in each of the state’s eight watershed regions.
Dayton’s policy initiative in Minnesota shares more than just a name with our 25x’25 Vision that would enable America’s farms, ranches and forestlands to meet 25 percent of this nation’s energy needs with renewable energy by 2025. They both aim to better the public good through initiatives that leave our world a better place.
While the clean energy and energy efficiency goals being pursued under the 25x’25 Vision offer both economic and national security benefits, it also aims to enhance our environment. Both the Dayton initiative and the 25x’25 Vision promote diverse stakeholder commitment to efforts that boost our water quality, expand clean water access, promote biodiversity, support conservation, and even contribute to the mitigation of soil erosion.
Criticism of renewable energy solutions – usually from traditional energy interests and some misguided environmental zealots – often cites dubious claims of catastrophic harm to natural resources. For example, ethanol production has long been the target of charges that it wastes water, denigrates soil quality and has a large carbon footprint.
But ethanol stakeholders have demonstrated over and over that the biofuel offers net benefits that far exceed the resources that go into making it. Just last month, the USDA issued a study that reviewed ethanol production over the past decade and found lifecycle greenhouse gas-reduction benefits from corn ethanol are far greater than those found in earlier studies. The report concludes that the biofuel produces at least 43 percent fewer emissions than conventional gasoline. That efficiency has been driven by a variety of improvements in ethanol production made over the years. We can now meet current ethanol production levels by growing the corn needed for the alternative fuel on 30 percent less land and using 50 percent less water than was needed in 1980.
Biofuel stakeholders have huge stakes in their environment. They understand that to burn off natural resources resulting in a net ecological deficit is a quick road to bankruptcy. But in addition to the economic incentives, there is also the commitment that all agricultural and forestry producers make to the orderly development, use and conservation of natural resources. As articulated in the 25x’25 Sustainability Principles, growers comprehend that any use of the gifts provided by nature must take a full and balanced account of the interests of society, future generations and other species.
Dayton and Minnesota are hardly the only actors in the Midwest pushing for improvements in water and soil quality. The Iowa Water Quality Initiative was established in 2013 to help implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is a science and technology based approach to achieving a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus losses to our waters. As a part of that strategy, state Agriculture Commissioner Bill Northey announced last fall that 1,800 farmers committed $3.8 million in cost share funds to install nutrient reduction practices, including cover crops, no-till or strip till, or using a nitrification inhibitor when applying fall fertilizer. The Soil Health Partnership, a National Corn Growers Association initiative, works with farmers across the Midwest to measure how cover crops, reduced tillage and other practices like the 4R principles of nutrient stewardship – right source, right rate, right time and right place – can improve soils and improve productivity.
On a larger scale, planning work is underway in the Midwest to make a transition to an integrated landscape management of a resilient/climate-smart and multifunctional agriculture sector that can insure that the finite land resources in the region meet the growing demand for local, affordable and nutritious food, feed, fiber and energy, as well as maintain watershed and wildlife habitats and provide other ecosystem services.
The governor’s initiative in Minnesota serves to highlight the broad array of efforts – local, regional and national – that will enable our lands to meet our production needs while sustaining the good health of the water and soil we depend on. And it’s important to remember that while the 25x’25 Vision has been about food, feed, fiber and energy, it has also promoted clean water and stable soils, among other environmental goals. 25x’25 is not an “either/or” choice. Thanks to technology, innovation and stewardship, multiple solutions can be reached from the land. Finding those solutions can serve as an aspirational goal that policy makers, regulators and stakeholders at all levels would do well to pursue in the service of communities all across the country.