Craig Cox: “We need to get the right practices in the right places”

Craig Cox knows what he’s talking about.

He has worked as a biologist consulting with the US government on sustainability for over thirty years, and has worked on farm bills for nearly twenty. Since 2008, he has been with the Environmental Working Group, an environment and health advocacy group. He shared his disillusionment with the ability of institutions like farm bills to fix the current issues facing agricultureduring an Earth Day lecture he gave on the state of US agriculture, and where we should expect it to go as a result of the new farm bill. I can attest that it doesn’t take an expert to see that the two are very far apart. Eutrophication, for instance, is on the rise in the Great Lakes and other Midwestern bodies of water due to massive fertilizer runoff. Ephemeral gullies and ditches contribute enormously to this runoff, but all solutions being implemented currently are just as temporary.

The biggest cause of runoffs like these is ignored entirely: we hardly use our fields. I’ve lived my whole life in Illinois, and I can tell you that most people around here take it for granted that fields lie empty and useless for the 8-9 months when corn and soybeans are not growing. It is also considered normal or even inevitable thateach year, we convert more wetland, which on its own is a diverse, native ecosystem, and turn it into more land filled with corn, soybeans, potatoes, and whatever other foodstuffs the market demands.

Natural ecological services are disturbed and displaced by monoculture, erosion-prone fields. The only really motivation is economic, as an extra field of cornor soybeans can fetch a good price due to the large amount of federal crop subsidies.Yet Cox went on to explain that even from an economic standpoint, however, food derived from these few acres does not outweigh the long-term costs that erosion and nutrient loss will have on the land.

Though the government gives loud support to more sustainable methods of farming, not a lot is happening. One example Cox turned to was an Iowa field where some methods of “durable conservation” were supposedly enacted, but in fact between 1980 and 2011 more grassland became field than vice versa. The fact that there is very little market support for conservation means that practices flicker on and off as conservation measures are removed once payments cease.

Cox believes that farmers know how to farm more responsibly and that it is within our power to turn bad systems around. To support this, he has outlined a three-pronged plan to make conservation a full-fledged value of US agriculture. It requires facing facts on the failuresof voluntary programs and the market, creating discussion of basic rules, and defining what it means for farmers to be a good steward of the land.

Despite the optimistic tone he ended upon, I couldn’t help but feel more than a little disheartened by the lecture. I was deeply unsettled to learn that the new policy is not taking us where we where we want or need it to go in order to sustainably maintain our environment and continue to produce sufficient amounts of food. All I can say is this: Craig Cox was quite the introduction to writing about current US agriculture.