September 27, 2023

What we grow and consume in America is directly influenced by federal policy, specifically, the Farm Bill, a collection of government programs that requires renewal every five years. The sprawling legislation governs initiatives from farm subsidies to low-income nutrition support. With The Real Cost of Food, we’ve written about the severe environmental challenges posed by modern industrial agriculture, and in Ripe for Change, we’ve explained opportunities to advance sustainable practices. Here we dive into possible reforms or extensions of the Farm Bill to achieve this change.

Earthjustice sees four ways Congress can use the Farm Bill reauthorization to help farmers become more resilient in the face of climate change while lowering the sector’s significant environmental impact.

1 – Realign Conservation Programs for Maximum Effectiveness

The suite of conservation programs tucked into the Farm Bill is the legislation’s main effort to mitigate agriculture’s ecological impacts. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program use taxpayer dollars to fund environmentally friendly agriculture projects and practices. For example, they can encourage carbon storage by funding cover cropping and diverse crop rotations while also financing the installation of vegetative stream buffers and grass waterways to stem farm chemical run-off. But much of the programs’ money is spent at cross-purposes by funding manure lagoons for giant factory livestock farms and irrigation in arid lands with plummeting aquifers. Congress can and should better target these programs to address the great challenge of climate change.

Another great opportunity lies in both better targeting and extending the time period for conservation set-asides. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers to return cropland back to a fallow, wild state that can better sequester carbon in the soil. But CRP contracts are not always focused on the most ecologically important lands (which are often also the agriculturally least productive). Moreover, CRP contracts are generally for only ten years. When contracts expire, the land is often plowed-up for cultivation, sending stored carbon back into the atmosphere, wasting precious time and money. A much better use of taxpayer money that is also far better for the environment is to focus CRP more on ecologically sensitive land (such as stream buffers) and extend the contracts to 30 years or, even better, employ conservation easements. Unfortunately, now only less than .1% of the Farm Bill is used to support long-term agricultural conservation easements.

2 – Knowledge and Data Are Key to Agriculture’s Climate Success

Funding for agricultural research fell from $6 billion to $4.5 billion from 2003 to 2013. Private companies researching the next agriculture breakthrough now outspend public research. Government research is crucial because it is less influenced by industry and focuses on publicly available knowledge rather than patentable products that will not be freely available. Agriculture is a complex, ever-evolving system, and only with robust public research funding can we hope to focus the sector on real carbon reduction goals.

Currently, there are 10 regional climate hubs that link U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research and scientific experts with local farmers and agriculture professionals. Congress should use the Farm Bill’s research title to fund USDA’s climate hubs by at least $50 million per year. Moreover, since agroforestry has the largest climate mitigation potential, and yet is deployed on only a tiny portion of U.S. farmland, further support for the national and regional agroforestry centers would pay off quickly.

The emphasis on a more equitable and fair Farm Bill also needs to be reflected in agriculture research. Congress should provide a 30% set aside for all climate-specific research, education, and outreach funding to go to minority-serving institutions.

3 – Shift the Safety Net for Climate

With the stated mission to provide an affordable and abundant food supply, America has subsidized farmers for nearly a century. The Farm Bill authorizes many of these subsidies, including production incentives, which encourage the industrial-scale chemical and energy-intensive cultivation of commodity crops.

The predominant modern government support is the federal crop insurance program. Taxpayers fund over 60% of an agribusinesses’ annual purchase of insurance coverage. The challenge with crop insurance is that it codifies bad farming practices and rewards producers for continuing to farm in environmentally sensitive areas.

By realigning crop insurance and other subsidies with climate and water-friendly requirements, the Farm Bill could coax massive industrial operations into ramping up environmental mitigation while still relying on a government safety net. If landowners use their land — which is a finite resource — in an environmentally harmful way, all Americans lose the chance for that land to be used to help solve the climate change challenge.

4 – Sunlight: Not Just for Growing Crops

An anti-transparency loophole in the Farm Bill makes agriculture the only sector in which businesses receiving government payments for non-classified activities are shielded from public oversight. Section 1619 of the Farm Bill, passed in 2008, prohibits USDA from disclosing information provided by producers or landowners — as a condition of participation in government-funded programs — about their operations, practices, or lands. This includes geospatial information collected by the department about agricultural land or operations. This exemption also includes Freedom of Information Act requests. Repealing this loophole will give the public insight into how industrial farms are managed and a clearer picture of their environmental impacts; it will also allow much faster information transfer among producers. Without this information-sharing, it is hard to make the proper decisions with precious government funds.

Extra Credit: Harness the IRA For Agriculture

President Biden’s recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is the first law to tie funding of agricultural programs to the adoption of climate-friendly practices. The IRA is good for farmers, good for climate, and good for communities, and paves the way for more meaningful and rapid change through the Farm Bill.

Specifically, the IRA dedicates funding for long-term conservation easements that must be used for “interests in land that will most reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions associated with the land eligible for the program.”

This is the first time Congress has linked conservation easements and improved climate-friendly practices and would effectively prioritize funding for easement on lands that employ such practices. This is an excellent model for future farm bills.

In addition, the IRA directs $8.45 billion over the next four years to Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which nearly doubles EQIP’s prior funding under the Farm Bill alone. Critically, this funding can be used only for practices that the Secretary determines will help mitigate climate change — not more manure lagoons and aquifer draining irrigation.

Building on the momentum and precedent of the IRA’s linking of agriculture spending to fighting climate change, the 2023 Farm Bill process is ready for exciting and desperately needed change.

[Read Part 1: The Real Cost of Food]

[Read Part 2: American Agriculture is Ripe For Change]

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