American agriculture is highly productive, and innovations in technology and farm management have improved the sector’s environmental performance over time. No-till farming, for example, has reduced erosion, and new technologies such as high-efficiency irrigation and GPS-supported precision agriculture have in some cases significantly reduced water and input use. Yet evidence also indicates that in too many places erosion rates continue to exceed soil regeneration rates, aquifers are overdrawn, surface and ground waters are contaminated with sediment, nutrients, and pesticides, and habitat loss continues.
U.S. agricultural conservation programs are not specifically designed to enable achievement of goals prescribed by major environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act. Federal farm conservation programs reward the adoption of USDA-approved conservation systems, but monitoring the performance of these systems is not required. Furthermore, current programs by and large do not allow USDA to focus resources to address the most significant problems, such as watersheds with high levels of sediment or nutrients in the water. Rather, funds are distributed across the country and awarded to growers who apply for them. In addition, programs that reward prescribed practices rather than high performance do not create incentives for growers to develop innovative approaches.
Movement toward a more performance-based approach is needed to ensure alignment of agricultural practices with environmental standards. This will require greater monitoring capacity, more widely applicable metrics, a shift in regulatory focus from enforcing compliance to supporting improved performance, and stronger collaboration among government agencies. A critical challenge for agencies is ensuring that actions taken by individual producers lead to desired environmental outcomes at the landscape scale. At the same time, producers need some measure of certainty that the actions they take and investments they make to meet environmental standards will provide protection from regulatory or legal action for some reasonable period of time. Developing ecosystem service markets may provide opportunities to reward high performers. Opportunities may also develop for collaboration between government and various private sector “sustainability standards.”