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The Price of Plenty: Your Money and the Climate Are Up for Debate in This Year’s Farm Bill
Missouri Ag Connection - 06/08/2023

Congress has a chance once every five years to transform conservation in agriculture. Will they take it?

Amid concerns over national debt, Congress is under pressure to pass its first trillion-dollar farm bill this fall. The legislative package, projected to cost an estimated $1.5 trillion over 10 years, could have big implications for conservation in agriculture – including the production and use of fertilizer.

The farm bill, which goes up for renewal every five years, addresses fertilizer use indirectly by setting the direction for agriculture policy and funding. It also includes funding for nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Now Congress has less than five months to renew and update the legislation before Sept. 30, when the previous farm bill expires. Conservationists see a once-in-five-year opportunity to cut agriculture’s contribution to air and water pollution.

“I think we can lay the groundwork for the beginning of some larger-scale change,” said Sarah Carden, a senior policy advocate at the Missouri-based advocacy group Farm Action.

The farm bill and fertilizer management

Chemical fertilizers are a necessity on many farms. But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. An excess of fertilizer can pollute drinking water and create toxic algae blooms and low-oxygen zones in bodies of water that are deadly to fish and other aquatic animals. Fertilizer production and use also emits nitrous oxide from soil, methane from algae blooms and other greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming from fertilizer production.

The farm bill pays for several conservation programs that address fertilizer and nutrient management. These programs pay farmers for more than 700 conservation practices.

The bill authorizes how much government agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture can spend on those programs.

Programs incentivize farmers to use conservation practices by issuing grants to help pay for implementing them. For example, buffer strips are a practice that prevents excess nutrients in fertilizer, like nitrogen and phosphorus, from getting into sources of water near the farm. That way, it reduces soil erosion and keeps expensive nutrients on the farms.

Some of these practices are better than others at reducing greenhouse gases, according to the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. The environmental group determined that less than a quarter of the budget for the conservation programs in 2019 and 2020 went to practices that actually reduced greenhouse gases. Others – such as building manure pits – don’t, the group said.

Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas from fertilizer that’s almost 300 times more intense than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, the use of synthetic fertilizer and other farm soil management practices account for 73% of all nitrous oxide emissions in the U.S.

Reducing these emissions from fertilizer is “the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

“We simply can’t afford to waste precious conservation dollars on practices that do little or nothing to help the environment, much less reduce emissions,” Faber said.

Conservation payments prove popular

Whether they represent the agriculture industry or environmental groups, many advocates support increased payments to farmers for conservation practices in the farm bill. Demand for these programs typically exceeds what lawmakers have been willing to dole out. According to the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, fewer than half of applicants between 2010 and 2020 could participate in conservation programs.


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