Why I Have Renewed Hope for Climate Action on Farms

August 2, 2022 | 2:07 pm
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

Watching the climate crisis unfolding all around us, I’ve experienced a rollercoaster of hope and disappointment over the last year. With last week’s surprise announcement about a Senate compromise on climate action legislation, I’m back to hope again.

My colleagues have argued forcefully about what’s at stake and how the Inflation Reduction Act would affect the cars we drive. But the nation’s farmers and farmland are also poised to be part of the solution, if only our government would invest meaningfully in it. Here I’ll expand a bit on the provisions of the bill aimed at agriculture.

$20 billion for farmers and resilient farmland

The Inflation Reduction Act would invest $20 billion to help the nation’s farmers respond to climate change. This is less than the $23 billion investment we advocated for in last year’s House-passed legislation. But $20 billion is still a big investment, the largest since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It’s $20 billion more than we had two weeks ago. And it’s climate-focused at a time when climate impacts on the nation’s farms and communities—from drought in California and its Central Valley to the horrific flooding in Kentucky—are becoming dire.

If passed, the current Senate proposal would inject many of those new dollars into proven US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs over the next four years—most notably, $3.25 billion annually for the federal Conservation Stewardship Program and $1.3 billion annually for climate-focused technical assistance. These investments would help more farmers plant perennial and cover crops, diversify crop rotations, and pursue other practices that science has shown to store carbon in the soil and make farmland spongier and therefore more resilient to flood and drought.

The Senate bill also includes $300 million for a USDA “carbon sequestration and GHG emissions quantification program.” This will enable the department to add more hard numbers to what we already know about the benefits of healthy, carbon-rich soil.

The legislation would also give an annual boost of $8.45 billion to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), with language clearly instructing the USDA to “prioritize projects and activities that mitigate or address climate change through the management of agricultural production, including by reducing or avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s important because EQIP has a history of funding agricultural practices and technologies with dubious environmental benefits—things like manure digesters and wastewater holding ponds at giant CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations).

Ultimately, the US Department of Agriculture would have latitude in how to spend funds authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act. And if this legislation passes, as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has called for, he should act immediately to direct them toward practices that achieve the greatest possible climate and environmental benefits.

Congress: Pass climate legislation now! And then build on it.

While it is vital that Congress act now to invest in the climate-friendly farming practices in the Inflation Reduction Act, there’s much more to be done. Other critical food and agriculture provisions from last year’s House-passed bill are not on the table today. These include nearly $2 billion for climate-focused agriculture research—to fund, for example, scientific studies that can help refine and optimize practices for different kinds of farms in different places.

Another $1.4 billion in USDA assistance and support for underserved farmers and $200 million in additional COVID-19 assistance for frontline food workers, both in last year’s House bill, are also nowhere to be found in the Inflation Reduction Act. But Congress also needs to pass a new five-year farm bill in 2023, and those additional critical investments will be reconsidered there.

In the meantime, this bill paves the way for the next farm bill to be a climate bill. And we don’t have another moment to lose. Tell Congress to act TODAY!