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

The Compleat Wetlander: Farm Bill Reauthorization will Impact Ducks, Wetlands and Human Health

Reports of high duck populations show that ducks are celebrating a comeback from the 1980s – from 25 million ducks to 48.6 million in the United States and Canada.  The Conservation Title of the Farm Bill is credited with this success.  However, numbers alone do not tell the whole tale.  The high duck population this year reflects the success of the 2010 and 2011 breeding season when there was high rainfall and wetlands as well as plenty of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands—where ducks rear their young and hide from predators—were plentiful.  However, this year is drier than normal with drought threatening much of the Midwest and 32% fewer wetlands in the duck breeding areas than last year.  The current Farm Bill expires in September and the fate of duck populations rests in part with the changes in the new bill.   But that’s not all.   According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, the fate of USDA Conservation Programs including Conservation Compliance will have an impact on public health as well.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is an academic center that conducts and promotes research and communicates information about the complex interrelationships among food production, diet, environment and human health.  The materials posted on their website concerning the Farm Bill are fascinating and well documented.  Below are some highlights from their reports covering the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title and human health.

Conservation Programs including Conservation Compliance (Swampbuster and Sodbuster) are important to human health because:

  • Food Security depends on healthy farmlands. However, 30% of U.S. farmland has been abandoned over the past 200 years due to erosion, salinization and waterlogging according to the Economic Research Service.  Many modern farming practices are unsustainable.
  • Exposure to Hazardous Substances Causes Spread of Disease –Unhealthy soil increases the potential for contaminants to be transferred to plants, air and water. Unhealthy soil leads to use of more nitrates.  Nitrates in drinking water have been associated with cancer, ‘blue baby syndrome’ and adverse reproductive outcomes.  Pesticide exposure has been linked with several types of cancer. Unhappily USGS has found at least one pesticide compound in 50% of the shallow groundwater wells and 33% of the deeper wells that tap aquifers that were tested.
  • Water is used to excess and inefficiently for irrigation and livestock – Agriculture accounts for 80% of U.S. water use, and over 90% in many Western states.  Agricultural practices that conserve water serve an important public health function.
  • Agriculture is the number one source of impairment to streams and rivers.  Fertilizers, manure, and other agricultural contaminants pollute rivers, lakes, and groundwater.  Pollution from agriculture is linked to toxic algal blooms, seafood poisoning, and elevated nitrate in drinking water associated with cancer.

The conservation provisions of the Farm Bill provide both technical assistance and financial support to encourage farmers to adopt more sustainable farm practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, no-till farming, rotational grazing, agroforestry and nutrient and soil management.  These in turn help reduce the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, promote water conservation and preserve healthy soils.

Wetlands are an important part of sustainable farming practices.  Wetlands present on agricultural lands can serve as water purifiers by filtering nutrients, toxins and sediment from water thereby mitigating many of the problems created by fertilizers and pesticides.  The loss, destruction and degradation of wetlands as a result of agriculture practices can significantly impair all these services and increase human health risks.

In addition wetlands play an important role in preventing flooding. The role of wetlands in reducing the frequency and intensity of floods is critical to public health.  Flooding causes both direct threats to human health and safety and is also associated with water contamination, communicable disease, and respiratory illness.

Swampbuster, part of conservation compliance, has successfully prevented farmers from draining wetlands.  USDA estimates that between 1.5 and 3.3 million acres of wetlands on agricultural lands have been protected by Swampbuster.

Crop insurance is currently the only large Farm Bill program that is not subject to Conservation  Compliance.  Crop insurance protects farmers from extreme weather events like flooding and drought. Draining wetlands and farming on highly erodible lands increases the vulnerability of cropland to these weather events.  In the Senate bill passed at the end of June, crop insurance was re-linked to Swampbuster. The House will begin work on their version of the Farm Bill this week.  It will be important for the House bill to also link Conservation Compliance to crop insurance.

To gain a better understanding of the links between healthy farming and healthy people, please take a look at the studies done by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.  Learn more about how soil erosion and loss of wetlands contribute to poor water and soil quality, which in turn, contribute to negative health impacts such as cancer, allergic reactions, and neurological and reproductive health problems.  This is a topic important to all of us.

Farm Bill: Protecting Environmental Compliance Programs: A Public Health Priority

Working Lands Conservation Funding: A Public Health Priority

Conservation Compliance: A Covenant Between Farmers and Taxpayers

Growing Healthy Food and Farm Policy:  The Impact of Farm Bill Policies on Public Health

Center for a Livable Future Facebook page

Farm Bill Budget Visualizer

Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity: Dispelling Myths about Public Health and the Farm Bill (Food and Water Watch Blog)

Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity: Dispelling Myths about Public Health and the Farm Bill  Issue Brief

Public Health Relies on Environmental Stewardship in the Farm Bill

House Draft Farm Bill (July 5)

Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Draft House Farm Bill Highlights

Path to the 2012 Farm Bill:  Draft House Farm Bill Drilldown

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