A 2007 article in the Environmental Economics Journal reported that U.S. farmers were losing an estimated $100 million in net farm income each year to soil erosion.[i] This might sound like a lot of money until you consider there are about 2 million farms in the US, which averages out to about $50 per farm. Even if we only count the 1 million or so “commercial farms,” the economic loss is only about $100 per farm. It’s pretty easy to see why farmers who are motivated primarily by economics aren’t willing to spend much of their own money to mitigate soil erosion.
However, a 1995 article in Science Magazine estimated the total on- and off-site costs of soil erosion and erosion prevention $44 billion per year. The economic costs of soil loss to society in general is far larger than the costs to farmers—about $22,000 per farm or $44,000 per commercial farm. If we add the on- and off-site costs of "water and air pollution," we are talking about at least $50,000 per commercial farming operation for the economic costs of environmental degradation caused by current farming practices in the U.S.
However, we tend not to identify the off-farm costs of soil erosion or water and air pollution with their on-farm sources. So we have been willing to allow the economic interests of individual farmers to take priority over the environmental consequences for society in general. We seem to have a difficult time understanding social costs in terms of millions and billions of dollars but can easily understand why a farmer doesn’t want to spend a thousand dollars for erosion or pollution mitigation to save a hundred dollars in farm income.
As an economist, I personally think it is time to stop trying to measure the consequences of soil erosion and the other things we are doing to the earth in terms of economics—in dollars and cents. What right do we actually have to place an economic value on the earth? “The Earth does not belong to man; Man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”[ii]
While this quote has been frequently attributed to a speech by the Suquamish Indian Chief, Seattle, it appears to be a liberal interpretation of a letter Seattle sent to President Franklin Pierce in 1854.[iii] Seattle actually wrote: “Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every clearing and wood, is holy in the memory and experience of my people.”[iv] But more importantly, these sentiments of Chief Seattle regarding the sacred relationship between humans and the earth remain an integral aspect of Native American culture.
The Onondaga “Thanksgiving Pledge” begins, “We are thankful to our Mother Earth, for she gives us everything that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about up on her. It gives us joy that she still continues to care for us, just as she has from the beginning of time. To our Mother, we send thanksgiving, love, and respect.”[v]
The erosion of the earth’s soil and pollution of its air and water are not simply matters of imposing economic costs on others but show a fundamental lack of respect for our interconnectedness and utter dependence on the things of the earth. These things are desecrations of the earth. We all contribute to these desecrations when we buy foods or support public policies that support the current extractive and exploitative systems of farming and food production.
Thankfully, we know how to make better choices, we know how to farm better; we know how to take better care of the earth and how to create a better future for humanity. For the past 100 years, and particularly the past 50 years, farmers around the world have been developing new and better ways to farm. In the US these farms of the future have gone by names including permanent, biodynamic, organic, ecological, holistic, and sustainable. Globally, names like permaculture, natural farming, and agroecology have been more popular. More recent regenerative farming has been growing in popularity, which not only seeks to sustain the productivity of the land but also to restore the degradation of past centuries. Also, a large and growing global movement called Food Sovereignty is committed to creating local, community-based food systems that reconnect people, with purpose and with place—with the earth.
In fact, all of the new sustainable farming systems are rooted in a commitment to restoring not only soil productivity but also to proclaiming a sense of integral connectedness with the earth and farming in harmony with nature. I believe the vast majority of American farmers feel a similar sense of responsibility to be good stewards of the land or caretakers of the earth. I think most simply feel trapped in a system that forces them to focus on the economics of survival rather than the ethic of stewardship. If we create opportunities for farmers to survive economically as they transition from extractive and exploitative to a restorative and regenerative farming system, I believe many, if not most, farmers will do so—regardless of the benefit/cost ratios.
So, what can we do to help create new and better systems of farming and food production for the future? We can make food choices that support the new farmers who are in the process of creating a new future for farming and food production, regardless of what happens to farm policies. We can also use the ongoing political campaigns to advocate policies that will facilitate a transition from an industrial agriculture to a regenerative, sustainable agriculture and to food sovereignty for economically oppressed rural communities.
And the reason we are here tonight, we can support organizations like the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust. SILT is helping farmers remove decisions concerning how their land is to be used from the economic pressures of markets and ensuring that it will be farmed sustainably by both current and future generations of farmers. You can support farm policies that allocate more public money to support SILT and sustainable land trusts. You can give your time, energy, and this evening, you can give whatever money you can afford to support the ongoing work of SILT.
Edward Hale, a Unitarian minister, is attributed with the quote: “I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.”[vi] Hale also wrote, “Together—one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Together we can create better ways to farm, produce food, and meet our other needs while caring for the earth and creating a better future for humanity.
Together we can stop the desecration of Mother Earth and reverse the spiritual degeneration of humanity. We are still as dependent on the “gifts of Mother Earth” today as in the days of Chief Seattle—not only for our food but for our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Our dependencies are just less direct and more complex. Our life is still a part of the life of the Earth. Our soul is still a part of the soul of the earth. “We can't do everything, but we can do something. The something we ought to do, we can do. And by the grace of God, together, we will do.”
* Prepared for presentation at an annual fund-raiser of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust in Fairfield, IA, June 19, 2019.
[i] Cited in the FAO Soils Portal, “Cost of Soil Erosion, http://www.fao.org/soils-portal/soil-degradation-restoration/cost-of-soil-erosion/en/
[ii] David Mikkelson, Chief Seattle Speech, Scopes, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/chief-seattle/ .
[iii] Liberation Theology and Land Reform, “Seattle Real or Feighned,” http://www.landreform.org/seattle0.htm .
[iv] Liberation Theology and Land Reform, “We May Be Brothers After All,” Speech of Chief Seattle, January 9, 1855, http://www.landreform.org/seattle.htm .
[v] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013), p 108.
[vi] Attributed to Edward Everett Hale in: United States. President (1922). Addresses of the President of the U.S. and the Director of the Bureau of the Budget. p. 80