Creating Solutions Together

Production agriculture has continued to maintain a position in the news as environmental and climate change concerns remain a focus of the general public. This month a few different issues will be highlighted regarding water issues and how they can impact agriculture in the Midwest.

Lake Erie algae bloom reduced in severity
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has estimated the annual algae bloom in Lake Erie will be reduced in severity from earlier season estimates. This is expected to be a result of the Midwest drought conditions. The low river flows have reduced nutrient loading to the lake’s western basin, leading NOAA to change the bloom’s ranking to a 3 on a 1-10 scale with a potential range of 2-4.5. The bloom was rated “moderately severe” in 2022 with a rank of 6.8.

Total bioavailable phosphorus drives the bloom severity each year with most of the nutrient loading entering the lake via runoff, reported to be from livestock production in the Maumee River watershed. Nutrient runoff reduction has been a focused effort in Michigan, Ontario, and Ohio to decrease the algae blooms in number and severity.

Although strides have been made, environmental groups have been critical of the efforts to reduce phosphorus from entering the lake. Tom Zimnick, Agriculture and Restoration Policy Director for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, disapproved of the region not being on track to meet the 2025 phosphorus reduction targets. “It is imperative that the states outline a new, more rigorous strategy to address nutrient loading in the basin that goes beyond the status quo approach,” said Zimnick.

Future farming will involve restoring the environment
Recently, there have been several articles referencing the Haber-Bosch process for turning atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer. Although this technology was invented during WWII, it has remained constant for nitrogen production. (For an interesting deep dive, read The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager.) This technology allowed for exponential increases in crop production to feed an ever-growing world. Because of fertilizer and increased efficiency, farms in 1900 required nearly four times as much land as in 2000 to produce the same number of bushels. Technology is continuing to maximize this efficiency.

The catch with the Haber-Bosch process is that it requires immense amount of energy and the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer produced is notorious for polluted waterways and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Some estimates attribute agriculture up to 25 percent of the world’s GHGs with Haber-Bosch alone accounting for 3 percent.

Thankfully, a Forbes article included the true predicament production agriculture is facing: “How will farmers be able to grow more food, with less land, decreasing their reliance on the status quo while facing more droughts, heat waves, and floods?”

Three solutions to producing more with less while maintaining focus on environmental issues and water quality continue to make the list:

  • New and improved crops through gene editing will become even more pronounced as new biotech tools will allow for crop breeding to take place in months instead of nearly a decade. These new crops will likely be more efficient in turning sunlight into biomass, leading to more carbon storage.
  • Farming will benefit the environment, not be seen as an environmental blunder. Gene editing in crops will likely include increased ability for crops to store carbon in future varieties. Some scientists speculate the same gene editing that would allow for increased carbon storage would also lead to a positive effect allowing for better tolerance to flooding and droughts.
  • Farms will produce food and data with the continued expansion of technology. Drones, sensors, and lab data will continue to develop and lead to a more targeted approach for crop protection and crop food products.

SCOTUS ruling on Sackett v. EPA continues to catch heat from environmental groups
As Steve Taylor has mentioned, the Sackett case was a win for agriculture, but we shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate. As the EPA is working to rewrite the WOTUS guidelines, the environmental groups are rallying to restore the additional protections to wetlands and community waterways.

One specific group, The Environmental Law & Policy Center, recently stated they will “expand their effective legal, policy, and campaign advocacy to strengthen Clean Water Act protections” and “litigate, innovate, and advocate with their partners for solutions in key Midwest states to protect vulnerable wetlands.”

Many environmental groups will remind their followers it will take their help to protect natural resources. It will be vital for the agriculture community to remind them of the strides being taken to follow EPA guidelines and protect the environment.

If you have any questions, please reach out to Andrea at [email protected] or by calling 573.636.6130.

Each month Steve Taylor or Andrea Rice provides an update on a current water issue. Both are with the Missouri Agribusiness Association which serves as MACA’s Water Consultant. Please share their information with others in your company. ~ Bonnie McCarvel, MACA Executive Director.