Lower Wisconsin River (copy)

Wisconsin’s toughest water quality challenges are tied to food and land use. The problems run deep and touch everyone.

Gov. Tony Evers’ “Year of Clean Drinking Water” is now half over. The Legislature has appointed a Water Quality Task Force, but does it have solutions? Wisconsin’s toughest water quality challenges are tied to food and land use. The problems run deep and touch everyone.

In Wisconsin, we consume 30 million pounds of food every day. Our cities have a week’s supply of food on hand. Like a patient connected to a feeding tube, we depend on a vast global food system for life support. Food production consumes more land and water than any other human activity.

In just one lifetime, world population has nearly quadrupled. When today’s children reach middle age, we will need 50% more food; yet we have 50% less farmland per capita than we did in 1960. World demand will put intense pressure on resources everywhere, including Wisconsin. Native prairies, rainforests, wetlands, fisheries, rivers and groundwater are disappearing into the maw.

Meanwhile, the U.S. throws a third of its food supply into landfills, and uses the world’s best farmland to feed its fuel-guzzling cars. One-third of the entire U.S. corn crop goes to produce ethanol motor fuel, while only 10% goes directly to human food (mainly oils and sweeteners). The rest feeds livestock.

Since 1980, suburban sprawl has destroyed enough U.S. cropland to cover 70% of Wisconsin, and enough Wisconsin cropland to cover Dane County. We have already lost a third of our native U.S. topsoil to erosion. Erosion clogs U.S. waterways with billions of tons of silt each year. Wisconsin’s erosion rate has increased by 25% since 1992, partly because of a heavy shift to row crops like corn. Bigger storm events, possibly linked to global climate change, are making things worse.

We have offset farmland loss by producing more food per acre, making intensive use of fertilizer, pesticides, high-yield genetics, antibiotics, factory-style concentration and plantation-style monoculture. But this involves huge environmental costs and sustainability risks that are not reflected in agribusiness balance sheets. Our food is costing us (and future generations) far more than we think.

Farm runoff is Wisconsin’s biggest water pollution problem. Wisconsin now imports half a million tons of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer a year, and much of it ends up in our lakes, streams and groundwater. Nitrate, leached mainly from nitrogen-rich farm fields, is Wisconsin’s most pervasive groundwater contaminant. Two-thirds of Wisconsin residents drink groundwater, and nitrate is a risk to their health. In many parts of the state, 20-30% of private drinking wells exceed health limits for nitrate.

Phosphorus runoff from farms is the leading cause of stinking algae blooms that routinely choke our lakes and streams. Some algae blooms are toxic. In 2014, a toxic algae bloom shut down the entire water supply for Toledo, Ohio. Like Toledo, many Wisconsin cities including Milwaukee, Green Bay and Appleton get their drinking water from lakes or streams.

Factory farms are quickly displacing Wisconsin’s small, iconic dairy farms. In the last decade alone, nearly half of all Wisconsin dairy farms went out of business. But during that same period, Wisconsin increased its annual milk output by 25%. Big operators led the surge. Just 3% of Wisconsin dairy farms now account for 40% of our milk. The state’s largest “dairy farm” has over 8,000 cows.

More milk means more cheese for export (90% of our dairy products leave the state), but it also means more manure in our backyard. A 1,000 cow dairy herd produces more waste than the whole city of Stevens Point (population 26,000). Manure is a useful alternative to imported commercial fertilizer. But it is costly to haul, so it doesn’t travel far. Large livestock concentrations have caused acute waste disposal problems in places like Kewaunee County, where some well owners have found their tap water running brown.

Hear voices

Get the Cap Times Opinion email delivered to you!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Agribusiness concentration has radically transformed rural life. In Wisconsin, just 13% of farm operators account for 76% of all farm revenue and operate 46% of all farm acreage. Oligopolies control key farm supply and food industries, and powerfully affect farming methods. Absentee owners hold a third of Wisconsin’s farmland, and collect state tax breaks aimed at farmers. Once-vibrant rural communities, built on small farms, look like ghost towns.

The current market structure rewards exploitative production and wasteful consumption, not resource conservation. If we want clean water and a sustainable food system, we need to get the incentives right. To achieve real change, we need to think big. Read more in "Food, Land and Water: Moving Forward," available from the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association (free online at Wisconsinlandwater.org).

James Matson, of Madison, was chief legal counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for 28 years. He is now retired. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.