Devoting land to crop production can diminish habitat for wildlife. Soil erosion, nutrient and pesticide runoff, and irrigation can pollute the air and water, degrade soil quality, and diminish water supplies. The degree of the environmental problems associated with agriculture vary widely across the country.
ERS analyzes the use and efficacy of conservation practices and of Federal programs and policies in combating the harmful effects of agriculture as they relate to:
- Soil quality, as compromised by wind and water erosion;
- Water quality, as compromised by chemical/pesticide and nutrient runoff;
- Air quality, as compromised by soil particulates, farm chemicals, and odor from livestock
- Wildlife habitat, as compromised by fragmentation, monoculture (which reduces landscape diversity), and diverting water for irrigation; and
- Wetlands, as compromised by conversion to cropland
ERS also evaluates the suite of policy tools that can be used to encourage farmers to adopt practices that protect and enhance environmental quality. An extensive research program has been developed around markets for environmental services (see The Use of Markets To Increase Private Investment in Environmental Stewardship, ERR-64, September 2008). The program addresses such issues as potential supply of environmental services from agriculture, demand for environmental services from the public, and market design mechanisms such as trading and auctions that allow market forces to allocate resources more efficiently to the provision of environmental services.
ERS has extensively studied costs and producer responses to other policy approaches such as regulations on animal operations, which are increasingly being used where chronic environmental problems such as nitrogen in the environment have not responded to voluntary approaches (see Nitrogen in Agricultural Systems: Implications for Conservation Policy, ERR-127, September 2011). ERS also evaluates the environmental implications of energy and commodity policies that provide economic incentives to producers that may be at odds with the goals of conservation and environmental policies (see Grassland to Cropland Conversion in the Northern Plains: The Role of Crop Insurance, Commodity, and Disaster Programs, ERR-120, June 2011).