Why Regenerative Agriculture Must Be the Priority of the 2023 Farm Bill

Soil has the potential to absorb 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions per year in the United States alone. By improving soil health, significant amounts of carbon can be sequestered, which has the potential to slow climate change as well as to reduce the risk of floods and droughts, improve water and food supply, and reduce the use of chemical fertilizers that are harmful to environmental and human health. However, the average farm in America loses over 4 tons of topsoil per acre, increasing farmers’ outstanding debt at about 4% annually. Regenerative agriculture, an indigenous and holistic approach to farming, focuses heavily on soil health. Interest in this practice has increased recently with the Netflix documentary, Kiss the Ground, as well as features in major newspapers. Despite regenerative farming’s increased visibility, the current Farm Bill only allocates 1% of funding to soil health focused programs and fails to provide other measures to promote a transition to regenerative agriculture methods. If the provisions of the bill are not revised to incorporate policies promoting regenerative agriculture’s implementation by 2023, when the Farm Bill is renewed, a major opportunity to address environmental and social challenges will be missed.

The Farm Bill was created in the 1930s as a part of the New Deal. Its primary goals were to ensure fair food prices for farmers and consumers, maintain adequate food supply domestically, and promote the sustainability of the country’s farmland. The most recent bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, covers topics including commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous items. On October 13, 2022, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) President Zippy Duvall claimed “since the enactment of the 2018 farm bill, farmers have faced significant challenges from market volatility, increased input costs, and devastating natural disasters. Despite these headwinds, farmers and ranchers have met the needs of consumers both here and abroad while continuing to improve our environmental stewardship.” These optimistic comments seem misplaced, as costs of synthetic fertilizer have increased by 30% as of March 2022, which is not surprising given Russia exports 48 percent of the global ammonium nitrate supply. Further, climate change models predict that estimated future harvests of wheat, soybeans, and corn could drop by 22 to 49 percent, depending on the variety of crop. Expecting agriculture to continue to function as it has with challenges such as these is ill-advised at best. If there is sincere commitment to providing food for consumers while mitigating costs and dealing with natural disasters, regenerative agriculture must be at the forefront of the 2023 Farm Bill.

Moreover, if regenerative farming is not adopted, in addition to putting the livelihood of farmers and the food supply at risk, the environment will suffer. Currently, agriculture accounts for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic fertilizer contributes 2.4% to global greenhouse gas emissions, and comprises more than 20% of direct emissions from agriculture. Though synthetic nitrogen may seem to allow plants to grow larger and faster, the use of synthetic fertilizers destroys soil health. With each application of synthetic fertilizer, the soil stores less organic nitrogen. As a result, soil is more vulnerable to erosion, cannot stabilize plant roots, and has more difficulty retaining water. Healthy soil can also absorb more water during floods and retain more water during droughts, reducing the costs of an irrigation system, and increasing the resilience of crops. Nitrogen fertilizers are also the culprit of increased exposure to toxic chemicals and the cause of harmful algal blooms. Problematically, the legislation in the Farm Bill is based on conventional farming practices. The bill heavily subsidizes and provides insurance for crops that perpetuate the use of fertilizer. These incentives encourage farmers to focus on production of subsidized crops, thus decreasing biodiversity. Further, these subsidies are mainly targeted at large agribusinesses and widens the gap between poor rural farmers, and large corporations. From 1995 to 2020, the top 10% of subsidy recipients were granted 78% of $240.5 billion available. The Farm Bill not only largely excludes regenerative practices, but also promotes practices that work against its potential benefits.

The objective of regenerative agriculture is to work in harmony with the ecosystem through restoring soil health, enhancing biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and creating a humane working environment. Practices included in regenerative farming are crop rotation and cover cropping, animal integration through managed grazing and pasturing, conservative tillage to prevent soil erosion, compost spreading, and many others. Many of these approaches have been utilized for centuries, and the benefits of healthy soil and lower chemical exposure are well-known. Implementation of and funding for regenerative agriculture must be the main priority of the 2023 Farm Bill in order to mitigate climate change and safely feed our expanding population. Regenerate America is an organization advocating for regenerative agriculture to be addressed and funded in the 2023 Farm Bill. Their website offers ways to get involved and outlines their policy proposals. The Farm Bill only renews every 5 years, the opportunity for change is now.