- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

In 1968, a young college marketing student asked a guest lecturer from a major oil company what would happen if America ran out of oil. The executive laughed, saying it would never happen in the student’s lifetime.

Today, while America has not run out of oil, we must import millions of barrels to keep our economy running. The need for oil is a constant force in our foreign policy as well as a threat to our national security. Just this fall we invested $87 billion in hopes of bringing stability to an oil-rich part of the world, and a threat of global war shadows all our policies.

In the 1930s, American conservationists began asking what would happen if America ran out of soil — not oil, but soil. What if we lost the capacity to produce enough food for ourselves and nations that depend on our exports?

It seemed a ludicrous question to many, but then the great dust storms of 1934 came. They blotted out the sun and blew Kansas grit into New Yorkers’ teeth. Ships at sea were coated with dust. We awoke to the reality that each year we were losing billions of tons of topsoil and millions of acres of productive crop and grazing land.

Not only were we spending billions of dollars to clean streams and dredge waterways, we began to have serious concerns about our ability to feed our growing population unless the trends were reversed. Even as we began to build up our defenses in the face of a then looming global war, our country began to invest in soil conservation as an integral component of the security of our nation.

Local soil and water conservation districts were formed. Farmers became educated in how to reduce erosion and protect streams and air quality. Through the years, a number of additional conservation measures have been added, and the great annual losses of productive soil have been substantially reduced.

But the conservation battle is far from won. The vast majority of gains we have made in the past 60 years or so have come from focusing on the most vulnerable acres. In fact, our most highly erodible lands have been taken out of production, reducing the total land used for food production. In addition, the growth of urban areas continues to consume productive farmland. The amount of land available for food and fiber production will not increase, but our population will. Therefore, we must protect the resources we have.

National resource inventories showed marked improvement in soil conservation up until the late 1990s, but there has been a leveling off in the past several years as existing conservation programs have essentially fulfilled their potential.

There is now a critical need to focus on the lands that remain in production. Even though the most vulnerable acres have been protected or taken out of production, we still lose 1.3 billion tons of topsoil each year. Tons of silt flow into our streams. Tons of fertilizer are applied to restore lost nutrients. Billions are spent to dredge our waterways and clean our water for drinking.

In the last Farm Bill, the nation’s 3,000 local conservation districts strongly supported establishing a new Conservation Security Program (CSP), which would take soil conservation to the next level. Under this program, any producer would be eligible to qualify for incentive payments by implementing conservation measures on his or her working lands. Through a tiered program, farmers would receive higher incentives for higher levels of conservation practices. These practices might include conservation tillage, planting of buffer strips and grass waterways, the use of cover crops, animal waste retention basins or stream bank reinforcements.

Increasing the funding for conservation would direct resources where they can benefit all of society. Our society is increasingly supportive of environmental efforts. Implementing conservation practices on millions of more acres of working farmland would have a major positive impact on the environment, would preserve the productivity of our precious farm acres and would help improve homeland security today.

Providing incentives is the surest way to achieve widespread grower adoption and make the greatest impact quickly. The CSP was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, which was signed into law by President Bush in May 2002. It was to allocate at least $2 billion, most of it in incentive payments, to encourage conservation practices on working lands.

Congress has been working to finalize the 2004 Agriculture Appropriations bill that will fund CSP and other critical conservation programs. It’s time Congress and the Bush administration put conservation back on track by fully funding these much needed conservation programs.

Each year that we lose topsoil takes us a year closer to the time when our soils cannot produce what we demand of them. Not only do we demand they produce food and fiber, we may see the day very soon when we demand they produce bio-fuels as well. How secure will we be if our soils cannot produce? What if we run out of oil? Worse yet, what if we run out of soil?

Gary Mast, a Holmes County, Ohio, dairy farmer, is president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, an umbrella agency for the nation’s 3,000 local conservation districts.


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