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This week, Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act, a bill that addresses the role of agriculture in combating climate change with a suite of science-based and farmer-driven policy ideas. Congress failed to respond to the climate crisis in the 2018 Farm Bill, and Representative Pingree, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, is stepping up with a new proposal to transform farm programs. This comprehensive legislation on climate change and agriculture is extremely timely as farmers are facing a confluence of increasingly extreme weather events and the most depressed farm economy since the 1980s.  

The Agriculture Resilience Act offers practical and flexible solutions that farmers can use to increase their farms’ resilience while also sequestering carbon. The bill establishes a national goal for the agriculture sector to achieve net zero emissions by 2040, which it would reach through multiple avenues including quadrupling research and extension funding, maintaining year-round cover on 75% of cropland, establishing advanced grazing management on 100% of grazing land, converting wet manure handling to alternative manure management and tripling on-farm renewable energy production. 

The bill’s soil health section includes improvements to critical conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. (IATP recently submitted comments on both programs: EQIP commentsCSP comments.) These programs are  invaluable tools to incentivize farmers to adopt practices that are good for soil and water while helping them adapt to and mitigate climate change. The Agriculture Resilience Act would dramatically increase funding for these vital and routinely over-enrolled programs. 

The bill’s pasture-based livestock section includes much-needed checks on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are associated with water and air pollution and are high greenhouse gas emitters. This section supports a shift towards advanced grazing management and increased crop-livestock integration. Minnesota lost 315 dairies in 2019 alone; the bill’s support of pasture-based operations and efforts to hold CAFOs accountable for their pollution are a step in the right direction to keep family farms viable. 

The bill creates a new Alternative Manure Management Program to support more climate-friendly dairy and livestock manure management. CAFOs typically liquefy massive amounts of animal waste and store it in manure lagoons, which emit methane and damage air quality. In a 2019 report, the EPA stated that emissions related to manure management rose 66% since 1990 and said that “the majority of this increase is due to swine and dairy cow manure,” and that “the shift toward larger dairy cattle and swine facilities since 1990 has translated into an increasing use of liquid manure managed systems, which have higher potential methane emissions than dry systems.” The Agriculture Resilience Act would reduce the quantity of waste stored in lagoons and incentivize other forms of manure management. Other systems of manure management, including solid-liquid separation and composting, avoid the methane emissions caused by manure lagoons. They also yield a soil amendment that can be used in place of synthetic fertilizers. 

We are glad to see that key tenets of this bill align with the recommendations of the recent climate report that IATP helped develop through the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The bill is also largely in line with IATP’s comment to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. This committee will release its report later this spring and hopefully include recommendations from the Agriculture Resilience Act. Although the House Select Committee has no authority to pass legislation, its recommendations will send a strong signal to Congress on bipartisan ideas to combat climate change. 

Farmers are facing immediate economic challenges; farm debt is at a record high and farm bankruptcies rose 24% between September 2018 and September 2019. These challenges are exacerbated by climate change in the form of increased droughts, flooding and natural disasters. Representative Pingree’s bill is an important step in addressing these problems. It will take us one step further toward healthy soils, sustainable ecosystems, and increasing financial support for small and mid-sized farmers to build on-farm resilience and mitigate climate change.