Projections suggest Earth will reach nine billion people by 2050, a milestone that presents some unprecedented challenges. Food, clean water, energy and other vital resources will be in high demand and - without proper action now - low supply. In every way, we must work smarter, using research and technology to meet our needs and sustain our resources. One place we are working to create positive, sustainable change for both people and nature is the Mississippi River Basin.
For the past 150 years, the Mississippi River Basin has been increasingly plagued by system-wide problems like habitat loss, floodplain isolation, water quality and quantity concerns, sedimentation, and other pressures. These pressures are particularly strong in the Upper Mississippi River Basin where standard farming practices often result in a loss of topsoil and nutrients – an expensive problem that takes a toll on the farmer, field productivity and water quality downstream.
In 2009, the Monsanto Company made a generous contribution to The Nature Conservancy’s Campaign for a Sustainable Planet to advance the conservation of the Mississippi River and several of its tributaries. With the support of Monsanto, the Conservancy has conducted a three-year conservation pilot to improve water quality in four watersheds in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. This work is being carried out by the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership and Mississippi River Program. Through these initiatives, the Conservancy is working with local partners and agricultural producers in the Root River in Minnesota, the Pecatonica River in Wisconsin, the Boone River in Iowa and the Mackinaw River in Illinois to implement precision conservation in agricultural landscapes that addresses nutrient and sediment runoff and quantifies the effectiveness of this approach. The Conservancy is also seeking to understand which conservation techniques work best in larger sub-watersheds and how to best use and share these techniques with agricultural producers to help guide their farm stewardship decisions and ultimately improve water quality in the Mississippi River.
Solutions in Action
Over the past three years, the Monsanto-Conservancy collaboration has led to:
- The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) High Performance Priority Goals program selecting the Boone River in Iowa as one of four watersheds in the United States, and the only watershed in the Mississippi River Basin, as a pilot project.
- The City of Bloomington, Illinois has identified subsurface agricultural run-off as its most pressing water quality problem, and as a result invited the Mackinaw River project to help it protect the city’s water supply to more than 80,000 urban residents.
- The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) selecting the Root River project in Minnesota as a Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI) priority area through which close to $15 million was awarded to local farmers in the watershed the Conservancy works with.
- The Soil and Water Conservation Society’s (SWCS) annual conference, held in July 2011 in Washington D.C., choosing the Pecatonica River project in Wisconsin for a special session.
Monsanto funding has also advanced the work of the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership (GRP), a global effort bringing together the best available science and diverse stakeholders to advance sustainable management of the world's great rivers. Through networking and initiatives like Field to Market, GRP, Monsanto and other partners are changing our national approach to agriculture, making farms more productive through increasingly sustainable and more efficient operation.
Overall, funding from Monsanto has helped the Conservancy achieve a number of important goals for improving water quality and advancing conservation in the Mississippi River Basin. In all, the project has allowed the Conservancy to:
- Leverage more than $22 million in funding for conservation from public and private partners. Among other advancements, this funding has helped to expand the Mackinaw River watershed project in Illinois, allowing the program to address issues affecting the drinking water of more than 80,000 residents.
- Directly reach more than 850 farmers and landowners positioned to make a lasting impact on water quality in the Mississippi River Basin through the use of best management practices (BMPs). This work included demonstration events as well as outreach in connection to three paired watershed studies.
- Help show landowners and policy makers that these BMPs can significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen lost by farms from runoff into the watershed. In the Root River watershed, short-term results show that these reductions amount to as much as 53,520 pounds of nitrates entering the watershed per year. In the Boone River watershed, we can approximate nitrate load reduction of 75, 915 pounds per year. Figures like these, though preliminary, give us hope that as we continue our work and export lessons learned from these pilot projects to other areas within the basin, our efforts will have an even greater lasting impact on water quality throughout the Mississippi River system and into the Gulf of Mexico.
A Sustainable Future
Conservation initiatives such as these offer a new vision for the Mississippi River and agricultural landscapes by which farmers can efficiently produce higher-yielding crops for food, feed, fiber and fuel in ways that further preserve water quality as well as support diverse and abundant wildlife populations.
Over the years, crop producers have implemented cultural practices that reduce erosion, runoff and sedimentation into our nation’s rivers and streams. These common on-farm stewardship practices include conservation tillage, no-till, filter strips and water control structures. Improved placement of fertilizers and precision application of fertilizers and agri-chemicals are additional, market-driven best management practices that contribute to improved water quality in agricultural ecosystems. Additionally, on-farm tools available to farmers today, such as, herbicide-tolerant crops are supporting the conversion of farmland to no-till practices which greatly reduce erosion and the emission of greenhouse gas into our environment.
In the future, crop producers are expected to have additional on-farm tools that can enhance their environmental stewardship efforts. Agricultural technology providers, such as Monsanto, are working to develop nitrogen-use efficiency technologies and crop products that yield more on each acre of land. The Conservancy continues to work with these companies to ensure sustainable agriculture for years to come.