Equilibrium & Sustainability

Five things to watch for in next year’s ‘climate’ Farm Bill

In this photo taken June 1, 2010, central Illinois corn farmer Jerry McCulley sprays weed killer across his corn field in Auburn, Ill. American farmers are producing more food than ever, but agricultural research is too focused on increasing production and needs to do better at considering consequences such as water and air pollution, according to a report issued Tuesday, June 29, by a federal advisory group. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Jostling has already started over the 2023 Farm Bill and both progressive and conservative activists told The Hill it will focus heavily on climate change and sustainability.

“We’re expecting it will be the largest climate bill of the next Congress,” Heather Reams, executive director of conservative Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions told The Hill.

With drought and extreme weather pummeling crops from California to the Upper Midwest, farmers are “feeling the impacts of climate change before the rest of us,” Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told The Hill.

That means an increased focus on adaptation to a harsher environment — and on ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions from a sector that, unlike most other parts of the U.S. economy, is seeing those emissions rise, Faber added.

But outside a few key areas, the two groups have very different visions of sustainability. 

Here are the five questions hanging over both the Farm Bill itself, and the future of American agriculture in an age of climate change.

What will Congress do about methane?

As the scale of American meat production grows, so do emissions of the powerul greenhouse gas methane, a byproduct of the process by which mammas generate protein that is dozens of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

And methane is only half the problem: concentrated animal farming operations, often called factory farms, require enormous supply chains of crops like corn and soy — which themselves require huge fields covered in nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers. These evaporate as nitrous oxide, which is also far more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide.

One option, often pushed by conservative lawmakers and advocates, is trapping methane and selling it under the moniker “renewable natural gas.”

They argue that any taxes aimed at methane reduction will simply displace American production onto countries with more greenhouse-gas intensive farming.

Instead, they will likely favor the use of incentives or subsidies to foster further development of methane-based energy, such as the ones hog conglomerate Smithfield is building in conjunction with Duke Energy in North Carolina, sources familiar with the matter told The Hill.

Many environmentalists say this is deeply misguided. 

“Methane primarily comes out the front end, not the back end,” Faber said. 

Creating profitable methane markets is liable to lead to more methane, Mark Rifkin of Center for Biological Diversity told The Hill. 

“Using a waste product to be put into the open air — that’s perfectly understandable,” he said. “But if you’re putting a dollar value on methane, then there’s no reason to reduce methane.”

Will conservation easements be reformed?

One key vehicle for potential greenhouse gas reduction, land protection or carbon storage is the $1.2 billion collection of USDA conservation grant initiatives like the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentive Program

But in their current form, only 21.5 percent of these funds actually go to practices that reduce greenhouse gases — either by binding carbon into the soil or cutting the release of methane or nitrous oxide, a report by Environmental Working Group found last month.

Much of the rest goes to routine maintenance projects — new roofs and irrigation systems — but about $100 million in 2019 and 2020 went to animal waste lagoons, which increasegreenhouse gasses. 

“Not only that, we’re turning away two-thirds of farmers who seek EQIP funds, and it’s not like there’s some process by which we’re saying — ‘If you really want to reduce greenhouse gases, you go to the front of the line,’” Faber said. “So it’s a big opportunity to flip the script and instead spend 80 percent of Equip and CSP funding on practices that reduce emissions.”

What types of crops, and farms, will get subsidies?

Most American food funding doesn’t actually go to food that ends up on people’s plates — in fact, much of it goes to commodities like corn and soy that are more like industrial precursors, used largely for processed foods, animal feed or biofuels. 

“The farm bill is now designed to overproduce a few key commodities and crowd out others,” Austin Frerick of Yale University’s Thurman Arnold Program told The Hill. “The goal is to make corn as cheap as possible because Pepsi wants to pay as little as possible to make chips and pop, and meatpackers want to pay as little as possible to make beef.”

One result of the conversion of much of the country to the production of precursor crops is that “we’re destroying rural Iowa to feed China,” Frerick said.

That means that table corn, carrots, cabbage, apples and broccoli are all examples of what is called, paradoxically, “specialty crops” — and they largely don’t get the same support as the heavily subsidized industrial crops.

This has a number of politically fraught impacts, Frerick said. It means that “healthy food is more expensive, while junk food decreases in price.”

Amid the rising prospect of a global food crisis amid supply disruptions from the war in Ukraine and climate change-fueled drought, “we’re not just failing to increase food production, but wasting the most valuable farmland in the country to burn in our cars.”

Animal feed poses a similar problem: only ten percent of the calories in a given unit of corn make it into a corn-fed cow, meaning that more farmland, fertilizer and pollution are needed for beef than vegetables, Rifkin said.

There’s an easy fix, Rifkin argued: parity in funding, at least, for crops people directly eat. 

“That wouldn’t be a huge reach, and there would be benefits to local economies and producers,” he said.

Will the bill address adaptation problems?

One area in which there appears to be strong bipartisan support is the idea of consolidating American agriculture away from marginal or drought and flood-blighted lands to those where it is safer and more profitable — and the release of those surrendered lands into wild landscapes that can help provide refuge for animals, secure carbon and raise the resilience of entire regions. 

Another key USDA tool that allows this — in addition to aspects of CRS and EQIP — is the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays for marginal or unproductive lands to be taken out of cultivation and returned to nature.

“Eighty percent of those dollars should be dedicated to permanent easements on hard to farm, marginal lands — freeing up prime farmland to produce more food, and getting long-term buildup of carbon in the soil,” Faber of EWG said.

More may be necessary. One brutal challenge of the age of climate change is that the economic geography of American food production is growing ever more divorced from its climate, water and weather patterns. 

Drought-plagued California, for example, is the heartland of America’s dairy sector — even though dairy is a staggeringly water-intensive industry.

“We have to start shifting food production in America,” Frerick said. 

But sources familiar with Republican farm politics said that while there was likely appetite for greater conservation support, sitting members were unlikely to direct funds away from existing farmland.

What pilot programs are funded?

Radical reform is unlikely in any farm bill, and this coming bill — likely presided over by a Republican Congress — least of all.

But several sources said small programs, with budgets up to the tens of millions, would likely be the most interesting and ultimately significant parts of the bill. 

“The bill has all these cool little pilot programs that are basically ways to throw little pots of money to try new ideas,” Frerick said.

For example, former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) funded a pilot program in the early 2000s that gave American schoolchildren fresh fruits and vegetables every day as a healthy snack — which was so successful that in 2005 it was scaled up to cover the entire country.

The pilot programs are “a great opportunity to spread your bets, almost like an investment portfolio,” Frederick said. “You do in a few states — different party states — and generate a bunch of evidence to show this actually works. And hopefully it can grow into something more more meaningful.”

Amid the standard supports for standard legacy interests, he asked, “can we plant seeds to allow for structural change down the road?”

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