ENVIRONMENTAL ADVANCEMENTS IN THE AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY
Since 1970, an annual event called “Earth Day” has been held in late April across the United States. This event
has been a time for all U.S. citizens to reflect on our Country’s environmental resources, and what we can do
individuals, businesses and as communities to help enhance our environment for the next generation. Many times,
farmers and the agriculture industry are portrayed as part of the problem for many the environmental issues that
we are facing in the United States. However, in reality the agriculture industry has made some significant
advancements in recent decades to help many farmers enhance their environmental efforts.

In recent years, much attention has been paid to “climate change” and greenhouse gas emissions caused by our
lifestyles in the U.S. and the rest of the World, as well by business and industry, including the agriculture industry.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas
Emissions and Sinks”, which has been published annually since 1990. The report provides an estimate of man-made greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., as well as the amount of carbon trapped in vegetation and soil. EPA
submits the annual report to the United Nations as part of the “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change”, which provides a global standardized process for reporting and tracking greenhouse gas emissions.

The recent EPA report focused on greenhouse gas emissions for 2022 from various industries, including
agriculture. The report showed annual changes in emissions, as well changes over the past decade or longer. The
American Farm Bureau Federation recently release a summary of the EPA report as it related to the agriculture
industry. Following are some highlights from the Farm Bureau summary:

  •  Overall greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. increased by 1.3 percent from 2021 to 2022; however, net
    emissions have dropped by 17 percent since 2005. Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry
    declined by 1.8 percent from 2021 to 2022 and are at the lowest level since 2012.
  •  The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 was the transportation sector at 28 percent of the
    total emissions, followed closely by the electric power industry at 25 percent and the industrial sector at
    23 percent, The commercial and residential emissions accounted for 14 percent and the agriculture
    industry accounted for just under 10 percent of total U.S. emissions.
  • Within the agriculture category, crop production accounted for just over 5 percent of the total U.S.
    emissions and livestock production was responsible for about 4.3 percent of the total, with fuel combustion
    emissions accounting for the remaining 6.4 percent. All of these segments of agriculture had reduced
    greenhouse gas emissions in 2022 compared to a year earlier.
  • Agriculture productivity in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent decades, utilizing less acres of
    farm and ranch land, with only a modest increase in greenhouse gas emissions. As was pointed out earlier,
    emissions from agriculture have actually been declining in recent years.
  • A couple examples of efficiencies in agriculture include:
  • From 1990 to 2022, U.S. dairy farmers increased milk output by 53 percent, while the greenhouse gas
    emissions produced per one billion pounds of milk declined by 26 percent during that time period.
  • From 1990 to 2022, red meat production from beef, swine and sheep in the U.S. increased by 44
    percent, while greenhouse gas emissions per 1 million pounds of red meat from beef production
    declined by 28 percent during that same time frame.

Improved efficiencies and technology advancements have helped farmers greatly increase their productivity in
the past three decades, with only a very small increase in total greenhouse gas emissions, and even a decline in
emissions within some segments of the agriculture industry. Most of the improvements in agriculture efficiencies
and greenhouse gas emissions have been accomplished through volunteer efforts buy U.S. farmers and ranchers,
along with support through federal and state conservation efforts.

One of the best known federal government conservation efforts related to the agriculture industry has been the
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. The CRP program
has been continued in every Farm Bill since 1985 and will likely be continued in the next Farm Bill which is
currently being discussed by Congress. The CRP program gives farmers and landowners the opportunity to
receive annual payments over a 10-15 year period for taking marginal and less productive cropland out of
production and establishing natural grasses and other land cover. The initial goals and objectives of the CRP
program were to reduce soil erosion on highly erodible cropland, improve water quality, foster wildlife habitat,
and provide some income support to farmers. More recently, in addition to the original benefits, the CRP program
has been identified by the federal government as a valuable tool as a method to promote and enhance “carbon
sequestration” on working farmland.

As of December 31, 2023, there were a total of just under 24.8 million acres enrolled in the CRP program, which
is slightly over 2 million acres below the maximum level of 27 million acres for 2023 that was established in the
last Farm Bill. Of the total CRP acres, approximately 7.8 million acres are enrolled under a General CRP contract,
7.3 million acres in Continuous CRP, and 8.6 million acres enrolled in the grassland program, with the balance
of the acres in CREP, wetlands, and other special CRP initiatives. Just over 3.2 million acres of the Continuous
CRP acres are in the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR) program.
The total annual Federal budget outlay for the CRP program in the 2023 fiscal year was just over $1.86 billion,
including $1.75 billion that was paid in annual rental payments to landowners with acres in enrolled in the CRP
program. In addition, USDA allocated $69 million in cost-share payments to landowners for establishing desired
practices and plant species on CRP acres and $42 million as special incentive payments through the Continuous
CRP program.

Based on a USDA report issued in 2020 on the 35th anniversary of the CRP program, CRP had accomplished the
environmental benefits during the first 35 years of existence since 1986:

  • From1986 to 2020, it is estimated that the CRP program reduced total soil erosion in the U.S. by over 9
    billion tons of soil, enough to fill 600 million dump trucks.
  • The CRP program sequestered an annual average of 49 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from the
    atmosphere each year, which is comparable to taking 9 million automobiles off the road in a year.
  • Each year, CRP nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from flowing into rivers, streams, and lakes in the U.S. by
    95 percent and 85 percent respectively, compared to similar types of cropland.
  • The CRP program resulted in the creation of more than 3 million acres of wetlands, while protecting more
    than 175,000 miles along rivers, streams, and lakes with riparian grass and forest buffers.
  • In addition, much of the land enrolled in the CRP program has been dedicated to enhancing the nation’s
    wildlife habitat, which has resulted in increased populations of ducks, pheasants, and other wildlife species
    in many areas, as well as creating improved pollinators to benefit bee populations.

The environmental improvements in agriculture in recent decades have been accomplished with a relatively small
investment of federal tax dollars through the CRP program, Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Environmental
Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and other programs. There have
also been State and local farm-related conservation and environmental initiatives through Soil and Water
Conservation Districts, wildlife organizations, and other initiatives, all of which have been heavily supported by
farmers. Most of the environmental enhancement in agriculture has been accomplished by farmers themselves
through the use of conservation tillage, precision farming methods, and other technological advancements. There
is still a lot to be accomplished to manage potential water quality, global warming and other environmental issues;
however, we can rest assured that farmers and the agriculture industry will do their part to find solutions.
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Note — For additional information contact Kent Thiesse, Farm Management Analyst, Green Solutions
Phone — (507) 381-7960; E-mail — kentthiesse@gmail.com