The Farm Bill Will Fail Us if We Don’t Improve It
This year, Congress will debate a huge, expensive bundle of policies and programs known as the Farm Bill, a legislative exercise that occurs twice per decade. “Farm Bill” doesn’t really capture the vast scope of this package, which affects the water we drink, food we eat and climate we live in. To their credit, American farmers feed the country and much of the world. But current farm practices, enabled by our farm policy, are poisoning water, eroding our topsoil, flooding communities, and drowning family farmers in debt.
Investments in conservation over the past half century, paid with tax dollars, have helped. But today’s problems are huge and are accelerating.
- Nitrates from agricultural runoff into our drinking water are putting Americans at elevated risk for cancer.
- Fewer than 40 percent of North America’s historic grasslands remain, and wetlands are being tiled and drained at incredible rates.
- Science is starting to point to connections between declining soil health and chronic human illness, even when we think we’re eating healthy foods!
- The window is closing on our ability to address the climate crisis without facing catastrophic consequences.
How long should Americans wait for water that’s safe to drink, or food that improves our health, or solutions to flooding and climate change? A better Farm Bill will improve agriculture on tens of millions of acres and help virtually every person in the U.S.
Whether you call it the Farm Bill, a clean water bill, or a human health bill, this legislation has the potential to be a gamechanger for American families and taxpayers alike, but not unless it adequately invests in improving water quality, fights climate change, and spurs a new era of conservation. Past Farm Bills have progressed good ideas but failed to implement those good ideas across the broader landscape. Existing Farm Bill programs can address these problems, but they must be dramatically refocused and scaled up so that tens of millions of acres of American farmland can be put to work for all Americans.
We Must Do Better
The scale, scope and accelerating nature of the problems demand we rethink how we invest taxpayer dollars better, how we evolve programs to provide the outcomes the American taxpayers – American families – expect for that investment; and with limited resources, how can we maximize the benefits of the investments we make?
As we examine why past Farm Bills have not delivered the outcomes Americans deserve, we return to the same conclusion over and over: programs have not – and still do not – prioritize or even include improving soil health. That’s the weak link, and that’s why our top priority is putting improving soil health at the center of agriculture policy beginning with the 2023 Farm Bill.
This can’t wait. Congress must pass a better Farm Bill this year.
Three simple steps will help:
- Put soil health at the center of our nation’s agricultural policy. This may seem obvious, but currently policies fail to recognize the primacy of healthy soil.
- Increase long-term investments in soil health and conservation programs that already have a clear, demonstrated record of success, like the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program that has restored and protected more than 2.5 million acres of wetlands across the U.S.
- Focus conservation dollars on programs that work together with state and Tribal efforts and leverage available non-federal dollars. A grant program that leverages resources from states and Tribes to combine with federal investments in soil health could lead to practices on tens of millions of acres of farmland that will drastically reduce polluted runoff and help farmers grow healthier food.
Cleaner water, sustainable food production, essential wildlife habitat and a better climate are all realistic outcomes of a better Farm Bill – if we scale up and enforce existing conservation programs, invest wisely and act quickly.
One of the main sources of dangerous water pollution in America is fertilizer and pesticides used in agriculture. Nitrogen pollution also fuels toxic algae blooms and dangerous red tides, polluting drinking water, making people sick, and killing fish – more health threats than just nitrate in water.
Nitrogen is essential for plant growth, and to increase crop yields, farmers have increased application of synthetic nitrogen over the years. Synthetic nitrogen applied to farmlands runs off into waterways and forms nitrates that end up in our drinking water. Coming out of our tap water, nitrate increases the risk of colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects, like spina bifida, among other serious threats to our health.
What’s even more concerning, studies document elevated risk for these harms when nitrate levels in drinking water are lower than federal standards allow.
Treating polluted water is expensive and doesn’t always completely remove all pollutants. Moreover, the 43 million Americans who get their drinking water from private wells are especially vulnerable because no state agency or water utility tests or treats the water they drink.
A better Farm Bill can help to reduce fertilizer use and polluted runoff by incentivizing cover crops, preservation of wetlands and maintaining buffer strips between agricultural land and streams. Healthy soils absorb rainfall and help prevent flooding. Farming practices that reduce toxic pollution offer far better and more cost-effective ways to prevent this contamination from happening in the first place.
Poor soil loses its ability to deliver nutrients to crops, which translates to less nutrition delivered to humans. Chronic inflammation, which can lead to heart disease and cancer, has become an epidemic in America. But regenerative farming practices that build soil health deliver vastly more nutrients that can combat inflammation to the food we eat than the same types of food grown in less healthy soils. In short, healthy topsoil on farmlands is essential for our capability to continue growing food, as well as our health.
Sustainable Food Production
At current rates, U.S. farmland will lose its remaining topsoil to erosion in a just a few decades. That would be a dangerous outcome for future generations. The U.S. has lost about half of the fertile topsoil that was in place two centuries ago. Worse, modern farming practices are causing us to lose soil 10 times faster than it can naturally be replaced. Without soil health practices to replenish topsoil across the landscape, we could lose the ability to grow any food at all within our children’s lifetime.
To keep soil healthy, the Farm Bill must strengthen and expand programs, like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that minimize tilling, promote cover crops, and encourage rotating diverse arrays of crops.
The window to address climate change before the worst effects take hold is shrinking. We need an “all of the above” strategy. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must store as much carbon as possible in natural sinks that keep it out of the atmosphere.
Increasing carbon storage on cropland is critical since cropland makes up about a fifth of the total land mass in the U.S. A 2017 study estimated that with better management, global croplands have the potential to store an additional 1.85 gigatons (1 gigaton = 1 billion metric tons) of carbon each year – as much as the global transportation sector emits annually. Think about that: if soil health practices were implemented worldwide, we could effectively take the emissions of every plane, train and automobile off the road! But we must start at home, and we have to start now. Healthy soil can sequester about one metric ton of carbon per year. EPA estimates the average passenger car in the U.S. emits 4.6 metric tons per year. So, one acre effectively takes one car off the road for more than 2.5 months! A little over 4.5 acres sequesters what the average car emits in one year. So, a 1,000-acre working farm with healthy soil practices in place on the whole thing sequesters enough carbon to negate about 222 cars.
One of the primary drivers of the loss of wildlife and biodiversity and the extinction crisis is the loss of habitat as wild places are converted to farming or ranching. Grassland birds are among the fastest-declining species in North America. Dozens of once-common birds – bobolinks, eastern whip-poor-will, rufous hummingbird and the wood thrush – have lost 50 percent or more of their populations in the past half-century.
But even amongst working farmlands, some wildlife can thrive if given a helping hand. In the 2023 Farm Bill we can strengthen programs that set aside unproductive farm ground where it can again serve as habitat for healthy populations of wildlife. We must strengthen easement programs that properly incentivize the conservation of wetlands and grasslands. Finally, we must safeguard existing protections for wetlands that remove incentives for draining wetlands or breaking native grasslands.
Why Do Taxpayers Fund Conservation on Farms?
900 million acres of private land in America – an area five times the size of Texas – are used for farming. What happens on that land affects every American. It’s in the national interest to not only ensure a sustainable and healthy food supply, but to protect people from harmful effects of industrial farming, including water pollution, soil erosion and flooding.
To achieve public benefits from conservation on private land, we generally provide financial incentives and technical support. Think about how your local government encourages homeowners to contribute to conservation benefitting your community: your city might provide a special trash bin for grass clipping and other yard waste to reduce trash going to a landfill or your town could offer small property tax rebates for homeowners to curb stormwater running off their yards.
The same principle applies to achieving conservation benefits related to agriculture. The only difference is the scale – when it comes to agriculture compared to our back yards, we need to advance conservation on hundreds of millions of acres of land. Conservation programs in the Farm Bill do just that – they provide grants to reduce soil erosion or for buffer strips along streams to filter pollution, and fund a nationwide network of specialists who provide technical assistance to landowners specifically to help them conserve natural resources.
Ever since the first Farm Bill emerged during the 1930s, the goal has been to make healthy, affordable food available to all Americans, ensure the financial viability of farming and protect the soil and natural resources needed for agriculture. We can live up to the promise of those early years with simple changes – if Congress acts decisively this year.