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Saving Soil Resources Needs High Priority

IT'S hard for laymen to get too enthused about a government report with chapter titles like ``Salts and Trace Elements'' and ``Manure and Nutrient Management.'' But a new National Research Council work on soil and water quality makes important points about how the United States treats the environment on which its production of food and other natural resources is based.

Most of us equate soil with dirt. But as the government and academic scientists who produced the study - ``Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture'' - point out, soils are ``living dynamic systems'' whose quality depends on texture, depth, permeability, biological activity, capacity to store water and nutrients, and the amount of organic matter they contain.

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``Soil resources are no less important to our environment than are air and water,'' says Dr. Sandra Batie of Michigan State University, who chaired the committee.

High quality soils not only are more productive, but they also help prevent erosion and pollution. Rainfall percolates better into such soils, which means that agricultural chemicals can be used more efficiently and are less apt to end up where they shouldn't be.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture and silviculture account for 46 percent of all river pollution in this country (compared with 6 percent from industrial sources and 11 percent from municipalities). Farmers use 64 percent more herbicides and pesticides and three times as much fertilizer as they did 30 years ago. While such ``nonpoint pollution'' has slowed in recent years, it remains a major issue in reauthorization of the Clean Water Act.

Meanwhile, some 3 billion tons of topsoil are lost each year to water and wind erosion tied to agricultural practices. Compaction, salinization, and loss of organic material are becoming major concerns as well. ``The full extent of soil degradation in the United States is unknown, but current estimates of damage from erosion understate the true extent of soil degradation,'' states the research council report. According to the World Resources Institute's environmental almanac for 1994, ``soil loss from farm fields causes up to $10 billion in damage annually.''

Private groups have been promoting the better use of farmland for some time. The Rodale Institute, the Land Stewardship Project, American Farmland Trust, and other organizations represent the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture, which increasing numbers of mostly family farmers are striving to achieve.

In congressional testimony this past summer, Ron Kroese, executive director of the Land Stewardship Project, presented the philosophy behind this promising approach

``Success in this new paradigm is measured in terms of health rather than growth - health of the land, health of the family, health of the community,'' he said. ``Optimal production within the recognized constraints of the ecosystem is valued over maximum production. Technological advances are not automatically equated with progress, nor is the wisdom from the past automatically considered passe. Neighborliness and a reasonable livelihood are treasured above the acquisition of wealth and power.''

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Relatively new government programs that encourage or require conservation of farmland have been a help. According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality's most recent annual report, farmers have enrolled 36.5 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program.

This pays farmers to take highly erodible and environmentally sensitive cropland (like wetlands) out of production, and it also provides financial support for the building of windbreaks or wildlife corridors.

But as the National Research Council report warns, other government programs can work against sustainable agriculture: ``Research suggests that price support and supply control programs exacerbate soil degradation and water pollution.''

Much needs to be done, and as Rodale Institute president John Haberern points out, a good place to start is with the US Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Increasing the SARE program budget several-fold from its minuscule $8 million still would make it just a drop in USDA's $1.5-billion research bucket.

Beyond that, each of us who lives off the land - and who doesn't? - needs to see the soil that forms the foundation of that land in a different light.

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