Commentary

Digging Deeper Into the Soil Erosion Scam

By Julian L. Simon
This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.

The Agriculture Department is reorganizing its 1980s program aimed at reducing farm soil erosion. As is inevitable with such programs, the program turned out to be a boondoggle for wheat farmers. Now the old contracts are expiring, and Agriculture is developing new rules about which lands will be enrolled and at what subsidy levels.

This program is part-and-parcel of the most conclusive discredited environmental-political fraud of recent times, the National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS) set up in 1980 by the Agriculture Department. This organization created a huge media scare about farmland being ruined by two supposedly related forces, urbanization of farmland and the erosion of fields.

Both scares were quickly disproven. The amazing part is that the assertions were eventually acknowledged to be false by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That is, even the original purveyors of the false facts about the “vanishing farmland crisis” ended up agreeing that the widely reported scare was without foundation. But the scares did not die, and are back with us again.

Here is the saga: Headlines like these began to appear in the newspapers about 1980: “The peril of vanishing farmlands” (the New York Times). “Farmland losses could end U.S. food exports” (Chicago Tribune). “Vanishing farmlands: selling out the soil” (Saturday Review), and “As world needs food, U.S. keeps losing soil to land developers” (Wall Street Journal). The stories claimed that the urbanization-of-farmland rate had jumped from the 1960s to the 1970s from less than 1 million acres per year to 3 million acres per year. This assertion was wholly untrue as we shall see.

Then in a Jan. 11, 1983, speech President Reagan said, “I think we are all aware of the need to do something about soil erosion.” The headline on a June 4, 1984, Newsweek “My Turn” article typified how the issue was presented: “A step away from the Dust Bowl.” More recently, we have such statements as that of Vice President Al Gore about how “8 acres’ worth of prime topsoil floats past Memphis every hour,” and that Iowa “used to have an average of 16 inches of the best topsoil in the world. Now it is down to 8 inches “

These are the scam-busting facts: The long-run trend in the decades up to 1970 was about 1 million acres of total land urbanized per year. The Soil Conservation Service in conjunction with NALS asserted that the rate then jumped to 3 million acres yearly from 1967 to 1975 or 1977. Scholars at several universities and think tanks found that the 3 million-acres-a-year rate was most implausible in light of data from other sources. And we found that the survey on which the NALS based its claim employed a faulty polling technique and had amazing huge errors in arithmetic.

The soil erosion claims were equally ridiculous. According to the USDA, only a tiny proportion of cropland—3 percent—is so erosive that no management practices can help much. Seventy-seven percent of cropland erodes at rates below 5 tons per acre each year, the equilibrium rate at which new soil is formed below the surface; that is, most cropland erodes less than the “no net loss rate.” Just 15 percent of U.S. cropland “is moderately erosive and eroding about a 5-ton tolerance. Erosion on the land could be reduced with improved management practices,” though this does not necessarily mean the land is in danger or is being managed uneconomically.

In short, the aggregate data on the condition of farm and the rate of erosion do not support the concern about soil erosion. What’s more, the data suggest that the condition of cropland has been improving rather than worsening. Theodore W. Schultz, the only agricultural economist to win a Nobel Prize, and Leo V. Mayer of the USDA, both wrote very forcefully that the danger warnings were false. Mr. Schultz cited not only research but also his own lifetime recollections starting as a farm boy in the Dakotas in the 1930s.

But even a Nobel laureate’s efforts could not slow the public-relations juggernaut that successfully co-opted the news media, won the minds of the American public, and were used to justify the USDA giveaways.

So far, the story is unremarkable—another environmental scare disproven. But in this case there was a remarkable development: In 1984, the USDA’s own Soil Conservation Service issued a paper by Susan Lee that completely reversed the earlier scare figures and confirmed the estimates by the independent scholars.

And the accompanying press release made it clear that the former estimates were now being retracted. “[T]he acreage classified as urban and built-up land was 46.6 million acres in 1982, compared to 64.7 million acres reported in 1977.” Please read that again. It means that whereas in 1977 the SCS had declared that 64.7 million acres had been “lost” to built-up land, just five years later SCS admitted that the actual total was 46.6 million acres. That is, the 1977 estimate was admitted to be fully 50 percent too high, a truly amazing error for something so easy to check toughly as the urbanized acreage of the U.S.

With unusual candor, the USDA press release added, “The 1977 estimate thus appears to have been markedly overstated.”

The USDA press release of April 10,1984, contained a second bombshell: “The average annual rate of soil erosion on cultivated cropland dropped from 5.1 tons per acre to 4.8 tons per acre.” That is, erosion was lessening rather than getting worse,exactly the opposite of what NALS claimed. And this finding undercuts the new USDA program being proposed now.

The only sensible action for the USDA is to swear off this soil-erosion program completely and immediately. At the same time it should aim its guns at other existing subsidy programs that induced wheat farmers to till land that, on their own without government intervention, they would therefore have protected from erosion instead of growing wheat on it.

Julian L. Simon teaches business at the University of Maryland and is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.