Tile drain in corn field

Three Examples from History That Demonstrate the Need to Break Down Silos in Decision-Making for Food, Energy, and Water Security

Since the early twentieth century, four of the dominant goals for food, water, and energy security in the United States have been to increase crop and livestock production, achieve energy independence, improve the quality and reliability of our water supply, and reduce flood risk.

While these goals have had widespread support, what has proved problematic has been the means to these ends: their pursuit has largely been in silos, with disparate laws, regulations, and incentives. Meanwhile, our food, energy, water, and natural systems remain interconnected.

What has resulted from this disjointed approach is a series of undesirable, even if unintended, consequences, primarily on the ecosystems that keep our FEW systems running smoothly. Notably, a disproportionate amount of federal funding has gone towards enhancing agricultural production with far fewer resources and measures to protect the ecosystems that ultimately support everyone.

The FEWscapes team outlined this problem, its consequences, and possible solutions in a paper published recently in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Our argument included three examples from the history of the U.S. Corn Belt that illustrate how disjointed (if well-intentioned) decision-making has led to unintended consequences that ultimately undermine the resilience of food, energy, water, and natural systems.

Expanding cropland at the expense of wetlands

Wetland drainage got its real start as a practice to increase crop production in the mid-19th century. Farmers across the Corn Belt found its poorly drained, glaciated landscape was too wet for row crops. So, with the passage of the Swampland Acts of 1849 and 1850, the federal government embarked on an era of providing technical and financial support for farmers to drain wetlands.

This support lasted through the 1970s. It was eventually halted by increasing alarm at the disappearance of more than half of wetland habitats (Dahl, 1990), problems with flooding, and excessive accumulation of nutrient runoff in waterbodies (Blann et al., 2009).

As it turned out, draining wetlands to produce more food removed the natural barriers that can intercept excessive nutrients in the soils and keep them from entering waterways, as well as retain excessive water when the landscape is oversaturated.

As goals pivoted toward water quality protection, particularly with the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, wetland drainage transformed from a solution to a problem. Today, it is seen as a primary driver of poor water quality in the Corn Belt and beyond.

Irrigating for food production becomes a drain on groundwater

In the 1880s, federally funded studies calculated crude estimates of the available groundwater in the Great Plains and West, which ultimately jumpstarted the use of groundwater irrigation to produce more food and buffer against drought-born crop losses (Rusinek, 1987).

Irrigation further expanded with prolonged droughts in the 1930s and 50s, combined with the increasing mechanization of farms, technological advances to pumps and center pivots, rural electrification through the New Deal, and improved scientific understanding of how groundwater flows (Kepfield, 1993). Yet another long drought in the 1970s, along with loosened federal restrictions on crop acreage, led to yet another irrigation boom.

You can probably guess what has happened as a result.

This history of federal and state investment in unsustainable groundwater irrigation for the sake of food security has jeopardized water security for much of the western Corn Belt.

While irrigation systems have become more efficient, thanks in part to a shift in federal support toward groundwater protection, groundwater supplies remain in a precarious position. For example, recent studies have revealed that more efficient irrigation technology has led to an expansion of acres irrigated with higher volumes of water (Li & Zhao, 2018; Sears et al., 2018).

Boosting energy independence through ethanol becomes a bust for water

More recently, the Renewable Fuel Standard has presented a conundrum between the desire for energy independence and the need to not just improve water quality, but also decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The Energy Policy Act of 2002 put the Renewable Fuel Standard in place, which mandated an increase in the minimum amount of ethanol to be blended with gasoline. The goals of this move were to increase energy security and combat climate change.

The standard created federal subsidies for corn ethanol production that drove more farmers to produce more corn. In some places, farmers converted land that was in conservation easements into corn (Lark et al, 2015); in other places, fields of rotated row crops became continuous corn (Pates and Hendricks, 2019).

The problem is corn happens to be an incredibly nutrient intensive cropping system, requiring large amounts of fertilizer.

Several studies in recent years have documented this expansion of cornland and the resulting increase in nutrient runoff, which is contributing to degraded water quality in the Mississippi River Basin and hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico (Anderson & Coble, 2010; Garcia et al., 2017).

Moreover, corn ethanol has not proven to be a boon for energy independence nor the climate. Much of the energy independence gained since the Renewable Fuel Standard began has been due to increased domestic oil production, and scientists now argue the predicted reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from using corn ethanol were, in fact, overly optimistic (Harris et al, 2018; Hochman & Zilberman, 2018).

Learning from History

Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, even if some of the consequences may have been predictable. And the policies and decisions that resulted in these tradeoffs were responses to real and, to some extent, urgent needs.

And we can learn from history. Policies often respond to crises and public demand. But if we can break free of the decision-making silos and create policies that account for the connections between food, energy, water, and nature, then we may be able to avoid unintended and undesirable consequences.

There will be many ideas for how to better integrate the governing systems that influence food, energy, water, and ecosystem security. And we aren’t claiming we have all the ideas. But we do hope FEWscapes will contribute to the conversation for how we can achieve our goals more holistically and with more reassurance of resilience.

Header photo by USGS