Harvesting Climate Benefits from the 2024 Farm Bill

Monday, February 5, 2024

What we grow and produce in America affects our air, water, climate, wildlife, public health, and more. The Farm Bill is likely the most significant environmental law Congress will address this year. It is also directly influenced by federal policy, and most importantly 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. The first blog in this series, The Real Cost of Food, addressed the severe environmental and climate impacts of modern industrial agriculture. The second blog,  Ripe for Change, explained the many sustainable practices that could improve our climate and environment, farmer livelihoods, and communities’ health.

In this third blog, we dive into possible reforms of the Farm Bill to accelerate adoption of these climate-friendly practices. Most Farm Bill programs require Congressional reauthorization every five years. Although Congress passed the last Farm Bill in 2018, it could not agree on a new Farm Bill in 2023 and passed a one-year extension of the Bill’s programs to September 30, 2024.

Much of the public debate around the Farm Bill addresses the nutrition programs, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly, “food stamps”), which feeds over 45 million Americans each year, and other nutrition programs – making the Farm Bill one of our most important public health laws. Other programs include trade and marketing assistance, forestry, farm credit, rural energy and more. The programs with the largest direct environmental impact are the conservation subsidies, research assistance, and commodity production subsidies and insurance.

Baseline Funding for Farm Bill Progams ($ billions; FY 2022-2031)
Baseline Funding for Farm Bill Programs ($ billions; FY 2022-2031). Source: Congressional Research Service, Preparing for the Next Farm Bill (2022).   

1 – Realign Conservation Programs for Maximum Effectiveness 

Farm Bill conservation programs provide over $6 billion annually to help mitigate agriculture’s ecological impacts. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program together grant about $3 billion per year to support environmentally friendly agriculture projects and practices such as cover cropping, diverse crop rotations, or vegetative stream buffers. But much of the programs’ money is spent at cross-purposes by funding manure lagoons for giant factory livestock facilities and irrigation in arid lands with plummeting aquifers. Congress could better target these programs to address the great challenge of climate change. 

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers about $2 billion per year to return cropland to a fallow state that can better sequester carbon. But CRP contracts are not always focused on the most ecologically important lands. Moreover, CRP contracts are generally for only ten years (although a new program in the 2018 Farm Bill allowed 30-year contracts in some limited circumstances). When contracts expire, the land is often re-cultivated, releasing stored carbon and undermining the climate and environmental benefits. Far better to focus CRP more on ecologically sensitive land (such as stream buffers) and extend contracts to 30 years. Even better, employ conservation easements; while the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program does offer such easements, it now receives only about $400 million in annual funding. (To be most effective, easements should also be tied to adopting or continuing climate-friendly practices.) 

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

Public agricultural research focuses on critical, widely shared knowledge, such as climate change mitigation, yet public funding for agricultural research was cut by a third from 2002 to 2019. Private companies researching the next agriculture breakthrough now outspend public research, which plays a pivotal role 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 greenhouse gas 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. Similarly, since agroforestry – adding trees to pasture and crop land — 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. 

We all learn best from friends and those we trust. Farmers are no exception. The Farm Bill can expand farmer-to-farmer training and experience sharing, providing a big impact at little cost. And, to partly address the long history of discriminatory treatment of non-white farmers, Congress could provide a 30% set aside for all climate-specific research, education, and outreach funding to go to institutions serving Indigenous, Black, Hispanic, and other communities of color. 

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 through the Farm Bill and in other ways before. One such program provides production incentives, which pay farmers based on past production and thus encourages the industrial-scale chemical and energy-intensive cultivation of commodity crops and impedes crop rotations. Revising payment metrics can shift impediments to climate action into incentives.

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 today’s crop insurance system is that it often codifies unsustainable farming practices and rewards producers for continuing to farm in environmentally sensitive areas, thus actually increasing climate risk. (It’s also wasteful – a third of all crop insurance subsidies flow to insurance companies and agents, not farmers.) Congress could realign crop insurance with climate and water-friendly requirements to producers into ramping up environmental mitigation while still enjoying 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 – Shift More Support for Climate-Friendly Foods

Much agricultural land and effort is devoted to livestock production, even though such foods have a far higher climate impact. Similarly, much of the Farm Bill’s support goes to corn and soybeans – largely used for animal feed (and biofuel feedstock). For example, in 2016 corn and soy received about 77% of the direct commodity subsidies – over $4 billion. Similarly, from 1995 to 2022, corn and soy received over 56% of all crop insurance premium subsidies and a similar majority of total insured liabilities. Moving forward, the Congressional Budget Office estimates for the next ten years that corn, soy, and sorghum will receive about 62 percent of all direct commodity subsidies. By contrast, so-called “specialty crops” such as vegetables and fruits receive only minimal support; for example, all “horticulture” receives less than one half billion per year in research, marketing, and conservation support.

The Farm Bill could provide greater support both to vegetables and fruits as well as to the ingredients in many plant-based foods, such as additional pulses and mushrooms. In addition, the Farm Bill could provide greater marketing assistance, research, conservation, credit, value-added product support, and supply chain and manufacturing support. Many studies suggest that such shifts in food emphasis would have health benefits as well, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend greater consumption of plant-based foods.

5 – Sunlight: Not Just for Growing Crops 

An anti-transparency provision in the Farm Bill prohibits USDA from disclosing operational and impact information provided by producers or landowners as a condition of participation in government-funded programs. This provision, especially in conjunction with other secrecy provisions, makes agriculture the only sector in which businesses receiving government payments for non-classified activities are shielded from public oversight. 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 

The 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 which increase emissions in the long run. 

Building on the momentum and precedent of the IRA’s linking of agriculture spending to fighting climate change, the 2024 Farm Bill process is ready for exciting and desperately needed change. 

Interested in learning more about this issue? Check out Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture (ELI Press 2022).

This blog was originally published by Earthjustice can be found at https://earthjustice.org/experts/peter-lehner/agriculture-climate-2023-farm-bill-harvesting-climate-benefits-from-2023-farm-bill.