Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

For Peats Sake: WETLANDS & AGRICULTURE: Beyond Restoration

By Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands dedicated this year’s theme for World Wetlands Day (February 2) as “Wetlands and Agriculture: Partners for Growth.” It’s a theme that may have caught many people off guard. Historically, wetlands and agriculture have been at odds in virtually every country worldwide.
It’s a widely accepted fact that agricultural conversion of wetlands has been the largest driver of wetland loss.

The Swampbuster provision in the Food & Security Act of 1985 was the first time that the U.S. Federal government officially recognized the importance of preserving wetlands from being dredged and filled for crop expansion. It was limited, however, in that it only protected wetlands from further conversion into agricultural use and provided incentives for wetland restoration through initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. The new Farm Bill is a success in many ways in regard to preserving some of the best wetland conservation initiatives in U.S. history, but it still falls short of addressing the impact of certain farming practices on wetland and other aquatic resources.

We spend billions of dollars a year worldwide on wetland restoration, but we are still losing wetlands at an alarming rate. If we are restoring wetlands and mitigating for wetland losses at an increasing rate, and if “the science of restoration ecology has matured substantially in recent decades” (Zedler, 2007), then why are wetlands losses so easily exceeding gains?

Many other countries have recognized that we need to go beyond stopping wetland conversion and investing in wetland restoration. They are looking at other potentially damaging agricultural practices, including the use of fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seed stock. Many of these contain chemicals that have not been tested, studied or used long enough to know what their long term impact may be on our natural resources or human health.

These chemicals flow into our wetlands and waterways causing dead zones, eutrophication and wetland degradation. Although wetlands are incredibly efficient at filtering out pollutants and contaminants, they have thresholds just like everything else in the natural world. And their effectiveness gets diluted with increased loading. The viruses and pests that threaten crop viability have grown resistant to many of our previously successful herbicides and pesticides, just as human viruses have become immune to our overuse of antibiotics.

And then there are the farming practices such as row cropping and monoculture which further stress our natural environment and require more chemicals to prevent and treat viruses and diseases. If a farmer is only growing one type of produce and it contracts a disease, his or her entire income can be lost due to a lack of crop diversity. We have crop insurance to cover these losses but we need to do more to prevent these problems.

I grew up in the biggest farming county in Ohio. I have a tremendous amount of respect for farmers. In truth, they are the largest group of land stewards in the entire world. Many of these practices are not what they would choose to do. However, those that attempt to go it alone and farm traditionally with rotating crops, natural pest controls systems and organic fertilizers have a difficult time competing in today’s market.

Fortunately, the new Farm Bill also provides benefits for the first time for organic farmers. Now organic farmers will be able to purchase crop insurance that is consistent with their crop value which can offset the cost of obtaining their organic certification. The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) portion of the new Farm Bill will also assist the organic farming business by offering financial support for research into better organic farming practices.

Not everyone can or wants to farm organically, however, and there is much to be said for simply supporting your local small family farming community. The new Farm Bill also includes funding for programs that promote local farming such as farmers’ markets. Supporting local farmers, whether organic or not, makes sense when trying to improve local economies and local communities.

We’ve made a great deal of progress when it comes to recognizing the importance of wetlands in contributing to the health of our nation’s stock of natural resources (among many other associated benefits). And we need to continue to expand our efforts in wetland conservation and restoration. But [for Peat’s Sake!] if we want to really preserve the health of our wetlands, we will have to look beyond conservation and restoration efforts and consider the bigger picture of what is continuing to drive wetland degradation, and much of that comes from agricultural practices that deliver undesirable pesticides and fertilizers into the very wetlands we are trying to preserve.

So thank you, Ramsar, for highlighting opportunities to foster understanding between wetlands and agricultural interests by recognizing their interdependence, the virtue of farming, and the virtue of healthy wetlands.

Ramsar World Wetlands Day

Organic Farmers Win Big in Farm Bill

National Wildlife Federation Farm Bill Analysis

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Farm Bill Blogs

Zedler, Joy. (2007) Success: An Unclear, Subjective Descriptor of Restoration Outcomes. Ecological Restoration, 25:3(162-168).

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