Agricultural and environmental economist Jon Winsten, a program officer at Winrock International, recently provided one of three winning solutions to a White House-sponsored challenge to address nutrient pollution through creative solutions. Nutrient pollution can lead to harmful algal blooms, the death of some aquatic species, contaminated drinking water, and reduced recreational uses of many waterways.
Although productive agriculture is crucially important to domestic and global food security, it is also the single largest source of nutrient pollution in the U.S. Last fall, a public-private partnership of federal agencies and stakeholders announced a competition, called “Challenging Nutrients: Transformative Strategies for Reducing Excess Nutrients in Waterways,” inviting participants to develop strategies to address nutrient pollution – specifically nitrogen and phosphorus. Winsten proposed an approach called “Pay-for-Performance Conservation,” an incentive-based approach to reward farmers based on the amount of nutrients lost from their farm.
According to Winsten, “Attaching the incentive to the outcome gets the farmers to seek out and implement the most appropriate and cost-effective actions to reduce nutrient losses from their specific fields. Environmental management becomes incorporated into the farmers’ planning, which is the most efficient place for it to be.” His work uses information from science-based simulation models to quantify nutrient losses at the field- and farm-level, and information from in-stream water quality monitoring at the watershed-level to design an incentive system that motivates farmers to deliver greater water quality to downstream users.
“This award has brought greater attention to pay-for-performance conservation, which is now being considered by USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an approach that can deliver greater bang for the buck in our efforts to improve U.S. water quality,” Winsten said.