In early 2023, I had the opportunity to serve as the reviewer of Chapter 11 (Agriculture, Food Systems, and Rural Communities) of the Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5). The NCA is a quadrennial report, mandated by Congress, that details the present and future impacts of climate change in the United States.
As a reviewer, I ensured that every piece of feedback submitted through the public and technical comment period was acknowledged and responded to by the authors. Moreover, if the comment asked for an edit or updated data, my job was to ensure that requisite corrections had been made in the text.
The findings of the fifth report are grim and state what has now become obvious: the United States is not shielded from climate impacts, and every sector of the economy and region of the country is experiencing these impacts. Climate risks will likely continue to increase even if we cut emissions of heat-trapping gases, but immediate action can help meet our national climate target and prevent drastic damage. While the full report runs more than 1,000 pages and discusses in detail climate impacts across various topics, sectors, and regions of the country, my focus as a reviewer was on agriculture, food systems, and rural communities, and in that regard, the top-line finding of NCA5 is very clear: climate change is already affecting agriculture and food security, and the resulting harms will continue unless we intervene.
Here are some of the key takeaways I gleaned from my review of Chapter 11 of NCA5:
“Weather whiplash” is already hurting US agriculture
- Extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and heat waves, along with altered precipitation patterns, have affected agriculture by negatively impacting productivity, and made crop yields much less predictable. Changes in growing seasons, plant hardiness zones, and outdoor working conditions (for farmworkers and other outdoor agricultural workers) will have negative impacts on our food and farming systems.
- As extreme weather events increase in frequency, the agricultural supply chain is more vulnerable to disruption. This creates instability in the cultivation and overall supply and distribution of food, which affects human and environmental health.
US agriculture is not just a victim, but a contributor
- The raising of crops and livestock is the largest emitter of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane in the US food system. Other steps in the supply chain such as processing, distribution, retail, and the final journey to our table also contribute to emissions.
- At least a quarter of US methane emissions (which have 27 to 30 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide) can be directly attributed to livestock production. Because livestock are raised in many different ways in this country, no single solution could be implemented to control methane emissions, so solutions need to be tailored to fit regionally relevant management practices.
- We need to transform agriculture from the current model of monoculture (where one crop like corn or soy is grown year after year) to systems that involve a mix of crops and avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. This includes the adoption of agroecological practices that build resilient and adaptable agriculture systems, which can withstand weather whiplash by building healthier soils that retain more nutrients and moisture.
Climate change is a threat to food security
- The impacts on food security will not be distributed evenly across populations and households—they will disproportionately affect food-insecure women, children, older adults, and people who already struggle to access fresh and nutritious food. Climate change will make food more expensive, especially for the socioeconomically vulnerable groups who already spend a higher portion of their income on food.
- Because 30 to 40 percent of food is wasted—thrown away or spoiled at the consumer end—rotting food in landfills is another major source of heat-trapping emissions. Reducing food loss and waste at all stages of the supply chain (from farm to plate) is an integral part of reducing emissions from the agriculture sector while improving food security.
- Rural communities are vital to US agriculture, since they are home to most of the land under cultivation and provide much of the workforce for the agriculture sector. Because climate change increases economic hardships for the people who reside there, significant investments are required to develop resilience in these communities.
Like many people, I often get overwhelmed thinking that we have so much to do to tackle the climate crisis in so little time, while alarm bells resoundingly clang in the background. It helps when I remember that key investments made possible through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are already being deployed across the energy, transportation, and agriculture sectors to curb emissions and reach the country’s climate goals.
And when it comes to agriculture, there is another solution within our immediate reach: the food and farm bill.
How can Congress make agriculture part of the climate solution?
The food and farm bill is passed approximately every five years, and the most recent one expired on September 30, 2023, without a replacement. There were several programs within the bill that could help farmers deal with climate change, but they need more support to make the kind of change we need, in the time that we need to make it.
Funding for climate. The previous food and farm bill offered funding that encouraged farmers to retire land from farming in order to improve soil health, water quality, and biodiversity. Last year, the IRA took that approach a step further by expanding investments that would make agriculture part of the climate solution by reducing emissions, conserving land and natural resources, and storing carbon. This money went to popular but underfunded science-backed programs that help farmers apply conservation practices that have measurable climate benefits to millions of acres of land. Republicans, however, have been pushing to divert this funding and distribute it to non-climate programs that would continue with business as usual, propping up monoculture commodity crops.
Building resilient agricultural systems. Bills like the Agriculture Resilience Act can be integrated into the larger food and farm bill to help farmers reduce their carbon emissions. The ARA would invest in research and science-based initiatives that improve the health of long-neglected farm soils and their ability to withstand extreme weather like droughts and floods. Several other marker bills like the Opportunities for Organic Act, Conservation Opportunity and Voluntary Environment Resilience Program (COVER) Act, and Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act are also important in building agricultural resilience.
Agricultural research. NCA5 specifically talks about research gaps and the need for increased investments in research. For example, the authors highlight the need to understand how effectively and how quickly emissions are reduced after deploying soil management practices. Several USDA research programs that can determine these critical gaps are authorized through the food and farm bill, and increased funding will ensure there is scientific evidence to support the implementation and adoption of mitigation measures across the farming sector.
Food security and food access. A majority of food and farm bill funding, above 75 percent, is devoted to nutrition—improving food access and food security for underserved populations including families and households that struggle to afford enough nutritious food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and a variety of smaller nutrition programs are instrumental in ensuring that those facing disproportionate impacts from climate change are able to access fresh, nutritious food. Marker bills like the Local Farms and Food Act, if included in the food and farm bill, would enhance nutrition programs by creating local and regional food systems that improve food access and security in underserved communities.
Can the next food and farm bill really do all this?
This list covers only a small portion of the programs with tangible climate benefits that could be included in the final food and farm bill, but it shows how important this legislation is in transforming agriculture from a problem for our climate into a solution. The next bill can very much be a climate bill by making and protecting substantial investments that improve the resilience of our food and farming system to worsening climate impacts.
While many existing programs are currently being funded on auto-pilot mode in the absence of a new food and farm bill, funding for some programs like the Conservation Reserve Program has expired. Now is the time for urgent action, and I encourage you to reach out to your members of Congress and ask them to protect IRA funding in the next food and farm bill.