Latest Round of USDA Climate-Smart Grantmaking is Both Better and More of the Same

December 15, 2022 | 12:45 pm
Fruits and vegetables of all sorts are inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) Market News Reporters and Specialty Crop Inspectors at the Terminal Market in Chicago, April 26, 2019.Preston Keres, USDA/Flickr
Omanjana Goswami
Interdisciplinary Scientist

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the second funding pool of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities on Monday. With $325 million in grants, this funding is intended to develop climate-smart agricultural products, spurring demand for products grown in ways that have measurable climate benefits, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions or sequestering carbon. After two rounds of funding, the total investment has exceeded $3.1 billion for 141 projects.

Who and what is USDA funding in this round?

In this round, the USDA funded a total of 71 projects at $250,000 to $5 million each. Based on a quick analysis counting the commodities cited in each project, it appears that the USDA has in this round prioritized specialty crops—the department’s shorthand for fruits, vegetables, and nuts, perishables that people actually eat—followed by beef, corn, soybeans, and livestock. This round of funding also focuses more on underserved farmers and on projects developed at minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The USDA has funded at least 16 projects led by various types of MSIs, such as tribal colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and several others where MSI’s are major partners. The USDA has also funded several projects led by or engaging/partnering with tribal groups, involving at least 20+ tribes and tribal groups across the country (after both rounds of funding).

Critical information gaps still exist…

The challenges we highlighted for the first round of funding remain unaddressed (for now!). No detailed project information is available (as of now) to help organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and other observers and stakeholders develop an understanding of the scale, nature, and feasibility of these projects.

There is also a funding disparity between both rounds of awards. The funding ceiling for this round focused on “underserved producers and minority serving institutions” was $5 million—the starting point for the first round of awards, where a large number of projects are led by multibillion dollar corporations. Our concern here is with equity. This disparity stems from the fact that bigger organizations have the technical capacity and expertise to apply for larger grants. For instance, in the first round, Land Grant Universities (LGUs) are leading projects with much higher funding ceilings than those led by MSIs. My colleague Dr. Alice Reznickova astutely notes, “We wonder if MSIs applied for larger funds and were not funded, or whether they felt discouraged from applying, as opposed to LGUs? In either case, we have to wonder whether that is a result of limited historical investments from the USDA in programs at MSIs that have prevented them from developing capacity to be able to apply for these large grants now.”

Given that industry and corporate players are likely to receive much higher funding than underserved producers, we note that these funding decisions seem to reinforce existing structural imbalances and inequities. Mega-corporations like Bayer and Cargill will be receiving funding from both pools, but this is also true for numerous universities, agribusiness, and nonprofit organizations, as the leading organizations and/or major project partners in both pools. Without knowing the exact breakdown of funds, it’s impossible to know who’s getting how much after both rounds. Unless the USDA is transparent and makes information public on how these dollars are being disbursed, tracking the money and the degree to which it is reaching underserved producers is impossible to figure out.

What we are NOT saying

Unlike some critics, we recognize the USDA’s intent to take climate action, as we believe that the Department has a long-overdue obligation to invest substantially in making farmers and our food supply more resilient and a part of the solution to the climate crisis. Such investments are absolutely critical to achieving the administration’s climate goals and moving toward a sustainable and equitable food and farming future. The USDA’s second-round funding announcement comes the same week as the release of the final report of the House Select Subcommittee on the Climate Crisis, which urged Congress to expand investments in climate solutions on the nation’s farms in the next Farm Bill.

We applaud the USDA’s investments that aim to build a more resilient food system and want to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being invested in projects with quantifiable benefits and that do not widen the disparities that exist within agriculture. Our ask for transparency on who is receiving how much funding and for what kind of projects will help us understand the degree to which these funds are being distributed equitably, towards science-backed interventions and practices with measurable climate benefits for the nation’s environment and agricultural systems.