Environmental stewardship is more complex than many politicians believe, say Al Mussell and Charles Lalonde of Agri-Food Economic Systems, so tackling issues such as erosion and carbon capture will require careful thought and some trade-offs.
For example, they cite research which found that no-till systems intended to reduce erosion by leaving more crop residue on the surface may actually be reducing soil organic carbon content.
There are also significant differences to the benefits of cover crops between course and clay soils.
In some places, reducing phosphorous runoff into streams, rivers and lakes is a high priority so some trade-offs could be acceptable.
This leads them to recommend that careful thought be given to setting a list of local-specific priorities for farm management and ongoing research should be undertaken to determine what’s happening in fields, water and the environment.
They write that “our existing framework for agri-environmental policy is not well aligned with trade-offs among BMP’s (beneficial management practices) or the breadth of environmental problems requiring a range of BMP’s- instead tending to encourage increased adoption of any and all BMP’s.”
That said, there are some things that have huge beneficial impacts, such as urease and nitrification inhibitors with nitrogen fertilizers in corn production to significantly reduce emissions of ammonium and nitrous oxides
Yet “because of the range in the efficacy of certain BMP’s in certain contexts, and because certain BMP’s actually work at cross purposes and actually inhibit certain desirable outcomes, a more refined policy approach is required,” they say.
So they call for ongoing research and cautious approach to policies, drawing on careful documentation of results, and a willingness to be flexible to change policies or approaches if unanticipated or adverse results are observed.