Time for the Farm Bill to get serious on climate change

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that affects everyone – and Congress is writing it now. It’s not surprising that, as such a wide-reaching bill, the Farm Bill has big implications for climate change. It is the largest investment in working lands and the primary method for addressing the environmental impacts of farms and ranches. Yet, as we’ve seen so far from the Trump administration, climate change research and programs have been underfunded or eliminated completely. From the rollback of the Clean Power Plan to threatening to pull the U.S. out of the Paris agreement to slashing climate funding in the federal budget, there is reason to worry that this administration’s anti-climate sentiments will extend into the 2018 Farm Bill.

Today, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released “An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.” Endorsed by IATP, the platform supports a fair Farm Bill that will help producers adapt to climate change, support vibrant rural communities, and keep much-needed farm programs intact and adequately funded. To work towards these goals, the platform has five underpinning priorities, one of which is encapsulated in a marker bill already introduced in Congress:

  • “Advancing Land Stewardship: Comprehensive Conservation Title Reform” – Conservation programs provide much-needed incentives for farmers to engage in climate, water, and air friendly practices. Conservation programs support agricultural resilience, strengthening farmers’ ability to absorb and recover from weather extremes and other stresses. Year after year, conservation programs have had their funding cut, and this priority asserts that funding must be maintained, and increased if possible, to empower farmers and ranchers with the skills, resources, and training necessary to ensure farms and food systems are resilient and healthy.
  • “Investing in Growing Regional Food Economies: New Markets and Jobs” – This priority area has been introduced as a marker bill in Congress, named the “Local FARMS Act.” A growing consumer demand for local and regional products requires supporting farmers participating in these markets. A lack of infrastructure (e.g. storage, aggregation, transportation, and processing capacity) and technical links (e.g., marketing and business planning) has made it difficult for many farmers and ranchers to update their businesses to reach new customer bases. If we are going to advocate for diversified family farms and local food systems, we must ensure the infrastructure is there for them to succeed.
  • “Securing Seeds for the Future: Public Plant Breeding Research and Development” – This priority area advocates for stronger public plant breeding research and development to ensure all farmers have access to high performing, locally adapted seeds. In agriculture, biological diversity is key to ensuring success: having a variety of well-adapted crops not only reduces the impacts of extreme weather, pests, and disease, it also protects against price fluctuations in the market.
  • “Aligning Risk Management, Conservation and Family Farming: Crop Insurance Modernization” –Crop insurance is critical for farmers in today’s age of increased extreme weather, but it must be improved. In its current form, the program has limited utility for certain types of farms and farmers in many areas of the country; it discourages sustainable farming practices like cover cropping while encouraging some unsustainable practices like short rotations; and it precipitates farm consolidation through its unlimited subsidies.
  • “Increasing Farming Opportunity: Beginning Farmers and Ranchers” – Over the next five years, nearly 100 million acres of farmland are set to change hands. This priority area addresses the challenges new producers face, including access to credit and land. As such, new producers need help in gaining the skills, knowledge, and land necessary to start farming successfully. This includes integrating climate-friendly farming methods as well as accessing land and credit.

Throughout the entire platform, NSAC and the endorsing members advocate for a Farm Bill that addresses climate change and reverses the trend of rapid consolidation in agriculture. These goals are interlinked; as farms become larger and more homogenous, it is more difficult to incorporate climate-friendly practices such as cover cropping and planting diverse rotations. Furthermore, as extreme weather events make farming increasingly unpredictable, pressure mounts for farmers to plant even on the most marginal land to try and produce a supply that can turn a profit. This is counterintuitive in the long-term, because increasing a farm’s resilience to extreme weather requires building up soil health, a goal that is undermined by increasing consolidation, the pressure to produce more, and unsupportive Farm Bill programs. NSAC’s platform understands this conundrum and advocates for a Farm Bill that benefits farmers and the climate, not the agribusiness companies that control so much of the system.

The most recent U.S. Climate Assessment states that “while some U.S. regions and some types of agricultural production will be relatively resilient to climate change over the next 25 years or so, others will increasingly suffer from stresses due to extreme heat, drought, disease, and heavy downpours. From mid-century on, climate change is projected to have more negative impacts on crops and livestock across the country – a trend that could diminish the security of our food supply.” This is a problem that will impact us all, and policymakers have the opportunity to get ahead of it by putting partisanship aside and tailoring the 2018 Farm Bill to include strong climate and resilience funding and recommendations. NSAC’s “Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill”  is an excellent place to start.