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The visceral threats of the climate crisis, experienced through recent Midwest floods and California’s wildfire-linked power outages, are fueling a new sense of political urgency. States like New York are passing bold, new climate policies. The Federal Reserve and financial regulators are finally moving forward to assess the economy’s climate risk. Young people are mobilizing. So where is Congress? This week, IATP outlined a set of policy reforms to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis designed to support farmers and rural communities, while decisively responding to the urgent threat of climate change.

The Select Committee was established by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) partially to blunt calls by newly elected members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to form a committee focused on a Green New Deal. The Select Committee will issue a report in March with recommendations for each standing committee, including Agriculture, on policies to respond to the climate crisis. The popular Green New Deal set a high standard among climate proposals by making major public investments in transitioning toward a climate-friendly economy that is grounded in racial and social justice. Will the Select Committee rise to the high standard set by the Green New Deal?

In our comment, we propose a series of major policy reforms designed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while supporting and empowering farmers and rural communities to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Farmers and rural residents are on the front lines of the climate crisis with deep ties to natural resource-based economies. Farmers are dealing with six straight years of low prices, often below the cost of production, and rising debt and farm bankruptcies. Our climate proposals reflect these economic challenges and provide a path forward that reduce emissions and drive a more equitable economy. Our proposals:

Support climate-friendly practices – We need deeper investments in conservation programs, particularly working lands programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, and a greater emphasis on whole farm planning. These under-funded programs support practices like planting cover crops, diversifying crop rotations, decreasing tillage and implementing management-intensive rotational grazing, which can reduce agriculture’s climate footprint and increase resilience in the face of climate disruptions. IATP fully endorses a new report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (we are a member), which goes deep into ways to strengthen Farm Bill programs.

Reform agriculture markets to keep farmers on the land – We need an updated supply management program to ensure farmers a fair price in the marketplace, while addressing the core challenge of over-production that is plaguing agriculture markets and hurting the climate. An updated program could reduce climate risk, put more marginal land into conservation to sequester carbon, and help spur more climate-friendly markets like organic or grass-fed beef and dairy. We also call for a moratorium on agriculture mergers as we consider steps to improve antitrust enforcement in a sector largely controlled by a handful of global corporations that is limiting competition and our ability to respond to the climate crisis.

Stop public supports for high GHG emitting factory farms – Increases in agriculture-related emissions in the U.S. mirror the growth in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Two farm programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Farm Service Agency guaranteed loans, use public dollars to subsidize new and expanding CAFOs that hurt the climate, while flooding the market and undermining independent producers. Federal programs also support the false climate solution of methane digestors for large-scale manure lagoons. These programs do not account for the full lifecycle analysis of CAFOs or their other negative impacts including water pollution, air pollution and environmental justice implications for surrounding communities.  

Protect agricultural workers – Agricultural workers are facing rising heat-related threats. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) currently has no federal regulations protecting workers in extreme heat. Several states have stepped in with new workplace protections, including strong new regulations in California. We need a federal standard.

Strengthen climate risk reporting requirements – There is rising concern about the degree of financial risk to our economy and to specific corporate actors (including agribusiness) associated with climate change. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is exploring this risk within the financial industry. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is examining the risks climate change poses to our financial system. Congress needs to greatly strengthen climate-related financial risk reporting requirements.

Build climate goals into trade policy – Trade agreements, including the proposed new NAFTA, constrain congressional power to regulate and raise labor, environmental and other standards that are important to the climate crisis. Trade rules grant polluters special legal rights to challenge climate regulations, weaken renewable energy and green jobs programs, and undermine climate-friendly agriculture policy. We propose trade reforms that prioritize responding to the climate crisis over expanding trade for multinational corporations and financial firms.

Reject poor performing carbon markets – Carbon markets worldwide and in the U.S. have failed to directly reduce GHG emissions. These markets can also contribute to environmental injustices, particularly for communities of color, by allowing polluters to simply pay to pollute. Many of these markets include soil carbon offsets, which create new loopholes for polluters. Soil carbon storage is extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices. In addition, the science and measurement tools are not advanced enough to precisely quantify the amount of GHGs sequestered over time. Farmers need predictable, public support to respond effectively to climate change, not an uncertain, ineffective and volatile carbon market.

The climate crisis is the challenge of our lifetime. A major obstacle continues to be an unresponsive and ineffective government. Will our elected officials rise to meet the urgency of this existential crisis? The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will be a barometer for where we are – and how much farther we need to go.