Future of Farming

Climate-incentivizing policies a contention point in farm bill

Photo illustration of California forest and mountains, center, green-toned with grayscaled/faded photos of land in drought (left) and a farmer irrigating a field in a tractor (left).
Madeline Monroe/Getty Images/Adobe Stock

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Climate policies are expected to be an area of contention as Congress takes up the farm bill — particularly as lawmakers weigh whether and how to incentivize farmers to take climate-friendly approaches.

The farm bill, officially titled the Agriculture Improvement Act, is a major agriculture policy bill that is passed every five years and subject to the influence of both parties. This year it will go before a GOP-led House and Democratic-led Senate — where it needs 60 votes to pass — with both chambers very narrowly divided.

Some of the most contentious areas in the climate arena pertain to whether Congress should be incentivizing climate-smart farming practices.

Many Democrats and environmental advocates have expressed support for providing incentives to farmers in order to encourage them to take on these climate-smart practices, such as planting cover crops.

Cover crops are ones that are grown to cover soil rather than to be sold as their own product. They can capture planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in soil, and also contribute to climate change resilience by preventing erosion.

However, Republicans have pushed back on the idea of incentivizing such actions — saying that the government shouldn’t be telling farmers how to best manage their fields.

“We need to make sure that conservation programs remain locally-led and that we are not promoting specific practices from the top down,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) told The Hill in a statement. 

If incentives for cover crops do move ahead, there may also be some debate over how. The Biden administration has pitched, in the president’s annual budget proposal, giving farmers subsidies toward their crop insurance if they plant cover crops.

Thompson pushed back on the idea, saying “Congress should not blur the lines between risk management and conservation.”

But supporters, like Matthew Kaplan, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council said that this makes the process of getting the incentive simple.

“It creates stability for the farmers and it helps them invest in their land, and it does it through a really simple mechanism,” Kaplan said. 

The future of agriculture funds in the Inflation Reduction Act — the Democrats’ climate, tax and health care bill — is also at stake, as Republicans may look to divert some of its funding meant to address climate change.

The bill included $19.5 billion to go toward climate-friendly programs at the Department of Agriculture. A department press release described the funding as going to programs that are oversubscribed — that is, those with more farmers who want to participate than there was previously enough money for.

A Republican aide said that at the very least, there should be a bipartisan conversation about those dollars and potential reallocation to other programs.

But environmental advocates said they will fight to make sure that the funding stays in the climate space.

“That’s our biggest priority — is making sure that $20 billion stays where it was supposed to go,” said Madeleine Foote, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters. “All of those programs are way oversubscribed, so this funding will go a long way in helping to get funding to farmers who want to implement these climate-smart conservation practices.”

Tags 2023 Farm Bill Glenn Thompson

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