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The Surprising Connection Between Food and Fracking

Big Ag is lining up to be a powerful ally of the natural gas industry -- here's why.

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As for Orascom Construction's Iowa plant, it's  being financed through a federal loan program designed to help states recover economically from disasters—in this case, Iowa's 2008 floods. The loan program, which gives Orascom access to an interest rate much lower than it would find in the commercial market, is a de facto subsidy—it will likely save the company $360 million in interest payments on the construction, the  Des Moines Register reported. And that's on top of $100 million in tax breaks the state of Iowa has  committed to the project.

What are taxpayers getting in exchange for these goodies? In my view, not much. Industrial agriculture's reliance on plentiful synthetic nitrogen brings with it a whole bevy of environmental liabilities: excess nitrogen that seeps into streams and eventually into the Mississippi River,  feeding a massive annual algae bloom that blots out sea lifeemissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon; and the  destruction of organic matter in soil.

Rather than prop up nitrogen use by subsidizing new megaprojects, public policy could be seeking encouraging farming practices that demand less nitrogen. One obvious strategy is diversification. The most prolific US crop, corn, is also the most nitrogen-intensive among major field crops. In a 2012  paper, researchers from Iowa State University's Leopold Center showed that by extending the typical Midwestern corn-soy crop rotation by adding a "small grain" (e.g., oats or wheat) plus nitrogen-fixing cover crops, farmers can reduce their nitrogen needs by upwards of 80 percent. Investing in policies that encourage such changes would likely, in the long run, be much smarter than subsidizing the fertilizer industry's move toward relying on fracked gas.

As they fight the expansion of fracking and push for tighter regulations on it, concerned citizens can count on an opponent nearly as powerful and monied as Big Oil:  Big Ag. Already, the American Farm Bureau Federation, which  essentially acts as a lobbyist for Big Ag firms, supports the controversial energy source: "Farm Bureau supports additional access for exploration and production of oil and natural gas, including the use of hydraulic fracturing," the group declared in an October 2012  policy statement (PDF). But the Farm Bureau and its agribiz allies haven't played much of a role in the fight over regulating fracking, yet. As the fertilizer industry becomes reliant on cheap US natural gas, that will likely change.


Tom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones.

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