South Africa takes first steps towards raising awareness of the eutrophication threat

28 August 2012

Today I participated in a one-day workshop aimed at enabling an environment that will support efforts to tackle the problem of eutrophication in South Africa.

I must say that I came away from this meeting with more hope than I had initially anticipated.  Not only was the process capably and efficiently run by a small team of staffers from the Water Research Commission, there were clear signs that attention is being paid to uncovering a topic that has been underplayed for so long.

There is a still a lot to do and the mechanics of how to place eutrophication on the radar of decision-makers poses all sorts of problems.  Time will tell but I sincerely hope that we, as a country, have finally turned a corner on this topic.  I look forward to being able to participate further.

One of the issues we discussed was the need to create incentives to assist with directing people to “do the right thing”, for example encouraging farmers to respect the need to protect rivers and waterways.  Following the recent deaths of two dogs from algal toxins in Nebraska, USA, came the following riposte:

Our nation’s refusal to reward farmers for practices that protect water quality and penalize those who compromise it is unacceptable.

Farmers used to rotate crops, and plant cover crops to prevent erosion and keep nutrients on the farm, but practices have changed. Federal policies encourage and reward farmers for growing commodity crops like soybeans as well as corn for livestock feed and, increasingly, ethanol. Continuous production of corn and soybeans with no rotation to hay or pasture depletes the soil — so commodity crops require lots of fertilizer and pesticides.

Organic farmers rotate the kinds of crops we plant, reducing the chance of erosion. Pasture and hay are a vital part of the rotation, protecting the soil, while providing our cattle with the diet they are designed to eat.

But often, large conventional farms operate differently. Larger livestock operations mean more manure, which can be valuable fertilizer — or a waste product that needs to be dealt with. Often manure is spread too heavily on the land, just to get rid of it.

Many popular conservation programs that reward farmers for protecting water quality are under the ax in this year’s federal farm bill, suggesting the problem will only get worse.

 The way we protect our environment needs to have a whole lot more compassion about protecting what is here now for future generations.  But, hey, one just has to look at how people ignore Stop signs, amongst other well-intentioned rules,  when driving to see how compassion for one’s fellow man has gone down the toilet.  I have said before that the measure of maturity of a nation is evidenced by mutual respect and compassion for others – how immature have we become and how much further will it progress before common sense prevails again?



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