Four Pieces of 2021 Progress on Agriculture and Climate Change Worth Celebrating

December 21, 2021 | 9:16 am
farmer in the fieldLance Cheung/USDA
Marcia DeLonge
Research Director and Sr. Scientist, Food and Environment

As 2021 draws to a close, it’s worth looking back at the year and reflecting on what came to pass on the climate and agriculture front. This year showed (again) how vulnerable farming and food production are to climate change, but also just how much potential there is for farmers to be part of the solution. And while there were plenty of discouraging points and reminders of the urgent need for action along the way, there were also noteworthy areas of progress. As we gear up for another year of fighting for urgently needed changes, I’d like to take a moment to share four items that I think are worth celebrating.  

  1. The United States rejoined the Paris climate agreement and acknowledged the importance of farmers and farmland to addressing the climate crisis. It feels like ages ago, but it was actually less than one year ago that President Biden—on his first day in office—recommitted the United States to be part of the Paris Agreement (which then became official on February 19). While this year’s UN climate convention, COP26, had its share of disappointments (including on the food and agriculture front), rejoining the effort was a crucial step. Further, President Biden recommitted the country to the goal of reducing its carbon emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030, a goal that in previous announcements has lifted up the importance of farmers and healthy agricultural soils.  
  2. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) took several steps to elevate climate change in its work on farm and food systems. Beginning early in the year, the USDA kicked off a series of encouraging actions, signaling a renewed commitment to making farmers part of the climate change solution. For instance, in March the agency requested public comments on President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, collecting critical stakeholder feedback on opportunities for agriculture to play a role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. In May, the USDA released its Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy: 90-Day Progress Report, followed in August by an Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience. Then, in September, the agency requested comments on the potential development of a Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Program (which we responded to here). Also, recent USDA research grant announcements have included a promising focus on climate through a transdisciplinary, systems-based lens. And the agency launched a soil carbon monitoring initiative for the Conservation Reserve Program, a working-lands program that may hold significant potential to support farmers in contributing to climate solutions. There have been efforts to improve crop insurance in ways that better support climate-resilient practices. The agency also continues to appoint leaders to key staff positions who have valuable experience in climate change and agriculture. Taken together, the new plans, investments, and programs suggest the USDA is taking its role in climate mitigation and adaptation seriously.  
  3. Congress has been pushing for investments that would build a more equitable, climate-resilient farm future. Several bills featuring agriculture and climate change were introduced or reintroduced in 2021. Perhaps most notably, the Agricultural Resilience Act—a bill that would dramatically expand urgently needed research and science-based initiatives—was reintroduced in April. And earlier this fall, Congress began to work out the details of a budget reconciliation package that would make a once-in-a-generation investment to respond to the climate crisis. As I wrote in October, the Senate Agricultural Committee drafted a series of recommendations that UCS believes represent a vital opportunity to move toward truly resilient and just farm and food systems. At the time this blog post was published, many of these proposed investments were still on the table, including substantial increases in funding for key research and conservation programs that are in high demand and can be quickly scaled up to make meaningful change. Yes, there is still work to do to secure key investments and ensure they are used in ways that bring the best possible change. But it’s important to acknowledge that even getting to this stage, which has entailed tremendous efforts by diverse stakeholders, represents real progress. 
  4. Healthy-soil policies continued to advance in many states across the nation. While federal momentum for healthy-soil policies builds, particularly as part of a package to address climate change, strides continue to be made in many states across the nation. A 2019 UCS analysis showed growing momentum in such policies at the state level, and recent activity suggests this momentum continues. According to one crowdsourced site, at least 20 states have now passed soil health legislation, and many more have policies in the works. For example, in 2021 an estimated 28 state legislaturesincluding Iowa’s, considered healthy-soil policies in the spring. This focus on soil health is crucial, because healthy soils are at the foundation of our food system and vital to our future. Not only can they help with climate solutions, but they can also address a variety of other persistent challenges, such as water quality issues that negatively affect communities near farms and far downstream as well (including those that depend on fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico). This continued policy momentum is encouraging and important, as states have an opportunity to tailor programs to their regions, to pilot or advance programs that haven’t yet been successful at the federal level, and to help raise awareness about opportunities surrounding soil health.    

With a new year approaching, it’s clear there’s a lot of work ahead, and 2022 holds important opportunities for key conversations about food and farm systems, from the state to the global level. It will also be a pivotal year in terms of preparing for the next farm bill (the current one is set to expire in 2023). However, if we pause to think about how far we’ve come, it just might give us the energy we need to keep pushing forward.