The Biden administration’s 2022 budget proposal requests $198 billion for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a decrease of nearly $17.4 billion from the previous year. This cut includes a $20 billion decrease for mandatory programs that is expected to be supplemented by stronger U.S. farm and food exports, as well as a $2.6 billion increase for discretionary expenses, which is good news for research communities, including universities, companies, and national labs.
The nearly $2.6 billion in additional spending proposed for discretionary budget authority will increase the funding level of all USDA research agencies, such as National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). NIFA links the federal and state components of a national agricultural research, extension, and education system. NIFA will receive $1.96 billion in discretionary funding, nearly $385 million above the FY 2021 budget. Under NIFA, different programs like Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) budget would increase over 60% ($265 million), and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension would receive a 50% increase up to $60 million.
The new investments in research, new technologies, and science-based standards support USDA’s mission to meet the rising domestic and global food demand for diversified diets and protein, and promote food security and sustainable agricultural growth.
According to the USDA, the term ‘sustainable agriculture’ means to apply practices to satisfy human food and fiber needs, make the most efficient use of resources, provide more profitable farm income, promote environmental quality and natural resources, and enhance the quality of life for farm families and communities. Examples of these practices include slow-release fertilizers like biochar from nutrient-rich agriculture wastes and animal manure that can reduce nutrient pollution from fertilizer or pesticide runoff.
Biochar from Cattle Manure
Cattle manure management could be vital in reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and improve farm productivity by addressing crop agronomic needs. Manure handling, including collection and treatment, has important implications for resource use, farm productivity, and environmental quality. Manure has been traditionally used as a nutrient source and natural fertilizer for soil-plant health improvement. It’s a resource that has to be used thoughtfully: fresh manure has high levels of pollutants and pathogens, but it is a valuable resource for farming and cropping due to its high nutrient content. Overuse of fresh manure may lead to extensive nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen) leaching that can flow into rivers and groundwater, and negatively affect water quality.
It is essential to supply enough nutrients for healthy crop growth and yields while not polluting the environment. These environmental challenges require new solutions. Biochar from animal manure has been suggested in over 600 studies in the past two decades as a sustainable agriculture practice to improve soil quality and address environmental issues, such as oversupply nutrients (eutrophication) into water bodies. Eutrophication can reduce the oxygen in the water and increase aquatic plants’ growths that causes structural changes to the ecosystem, particularly enhancing algae and marine plants’ growth and threatening the survival of fish species. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that eutrophication could cost over $2.1 billion per year in the United States.
Biochar and How It Works
Heating manure in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis) can decompose into pyrolysis char, oil, and gases, also known as biochar, bio-oil, and syngas. These renewable products have various applications in addressing sustainability issues. Biochar from manure can reduce the need for soil fertilization and work as a slow-release fertilizer that can retain nutrients and carbon in the soil for years, and release macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for plant growth. Also, the enhanced water-holding capacity in biochar-amended soils will increase crop yield per drop of water applied. Biochar’s porous nature can adsorb and immobilize heavy metals, and reduce their uptake by plants and subsequent ingestion by humans and animals.
Several companies, farmers, and ranchers in Europe, Asia, and Australia produce biochar from animal manure that can address various sustainability challenges, including manure management, chemical fertilizer overuse, water-nutrient pollution due to agricultural runoff, and integrated crop-livestock farming. Manure-based biochar is a potential approach to enhance sustainability benefits across crop production practices and agribusiness decisions, and it can be a good policy recommendation in line with President Biden’s January executive order (EO 14008) on tackling climate change, as it promotes carbon management systems and greenhouse gas emission mitigation efforts.