Agriculture Underscored in House Climate Committee Report

Posted on Tuesday, June 30th, 2020 by Guest Blogger
United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. Photo credit: USDA.

This blog is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post here.

Major comprehensive federal legislation to deal with the global climate crisis is long overdue.  While no bills are likely to become law this year, the time is ripe for piecing together the key components of a new law for consideration in the 117th Congress (2021-22).  Even before next year, the House of Representatives will engage in a trial run, voting on climate-related bills yet this year, though with the knowledge the bills are unlikely to be considered in the Senate or become law.

While transportation, energy, and economic development generally get top billing in climate legislative discussions, food and agriculture has a major role to play in addressing climate disruption, as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has stated in our Climate and Agriculture position paper, a farmer sign-on letter that is making the rounds, and in a new NSAC blog series on the Agriculture Resilience Act (HR 5861).

Farmers are on the frontlines of climate disruption and can play a substantial role in providing climate solutions. From a farmer perspective, it is worth celebrating the inclusion of an agriculture chapter in the long-awaited action plan (one-pager of full report) of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis that was released today.  Chaired by Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL), the Select Committee was empaneled back in February 2019 to pull together this national plan of action.

The Select Committee’s action plan lays out the steps Congress needs to take to put the country on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The roadmap would kickstart economic recovery by investing in clean energy and jobs that value workers. The report centers around 12 key pillars, including investing in clean energy infrastructure, transforming domestic manufacturing of clean energy technology, investing in workers and a fair economy, advancing environmental justice, protecting and restoring U.S. natural resources, and promoting climate-resilient agriculture.

The release of the Select Committee’s report was originally scheduled for late March but was delayed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is intended to serve as a template for eventual comprehensive legislation.

NSAC released a press comment on the report earlier today.

Agriculture Recommendations

Oregon Farmer Noah Williams builds soil with USDA NRCS. Photo credit: NRCS Oregon

The agriculture section of the Select Committee’s report includes seven major components – increasing carbon sequestration and resilience, decreasing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, improving technical assistance and research, supporting on-farm renewable energy and energy efficiency, supporting the next generation of farmers, preserving farmland, and reducing food waste.

These topic headings line up very well with the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) introduced earlier this year by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and endorsed by NSAC.  In fact, the new report makes repeated references to the ARA legislation, a bill which puts into detailed legislative language many of the recommendations highlighted by the Select Committee.  When it comes time for the Agriculture Committees of Congress to write their sections of comprehensive climate legislation or the climate-relevant sections of the next federal farm bill, the ARA will serve as a model to work from and further develop.

Highlights from among the scores of Select Committee agriculture recommendations follow.  Provisions included in the ARA are denoted by an asterisk (*).

1. Increase Agricultural Carbon Sequestration and Resilience Through Climate Stewardship Practices

By providing financial and technical assistance for conservation tillage, cover crops, rotational grazing, resource-conserving crop rotations, perennials, advanced nutrient management, and agroforestry, Congress can help America’s farmers and ranchers implement climate stewardship practices while increasing profitability and making their farms more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Specific recommendations include:

  • Restore automatic renewals under CSP to allow for continual improvement in farmers’ carbon sequestration efforts. *
  • Direct the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish region-specific climate change mitigation bundles within CSP that include both soil health and emissions reduction practices.
  • Increase funding for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials, including Soil Health Demonstrations.*
  • Increase conservation funding set asides for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. *
  • Require ACEP participants to complete and maintain a conservation plan, including climate benefits, with the option of automatic enrollment in conservation working lands programs. *
  • Direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to target CRP and ACEP to areas at risk of conversion to nonagricultural uses as well as flood-prone lands, peatlands, or other areas where climate benefits are substantial.
  • Create regional agroforestry centers to support silvopasture, alley cropping, and other excellent agroforestry systems to increase carbon sequestration and improve production. *
  • Set national climate stewardship practice goals and direct USDA to update these goals at least every four years to restore and maximize soil carbon in working lands. *
  • Encourage cooperative agreements and data sharing between farmers and federal, state, and local agencies, land grant universities, nonprofits, agricultural retailers, and conservation organizations to coordinate and support the implementation of measuring, quantifying, evaluating, and reporting levels of carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emission reductions on farms.
  • Study the feasibility of developing a federal tax credit to incentivize carbon sequestration and abatement on farms. *
  • Create a national organic agriculture transition program, including farmer-to-farmer mentorship opportunities, financial and technical assistance, and initiatives for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Establish a new mechanism such as a “climate-based producer” certification to provide markets and incentives for improved climate stewardship, including auditing and certification services through USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
  • Direct USDA to align conservation practices between NRCS programs and crop insurance programs and provide crop insurance premium discounts for farmers who use risk-reducing, climate-friendly farming practices. *

2.   Reduce Agricultural Emissions

Climate stewardship farming practices, including improved nutrient management and rotational grazing, can help reduce the nearly 10 percent of U.S. emissions that stem from agriculture.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Increase financial incentives to improve nutrient management through EQIP, RCPP, and CSP.
  • Expand research, development, and deployment of precision agriculture technologies to apply fertilizer more efficiently and invest in rural broadband to support these technologies.
  • Provide technical and financial assistance for farmers to adopt alternatives to synthetic fertilizer, such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and the use of non-synthetic fertilizers such as compost.
  • Create an alternative manure management program to provide grants to farmers for non-digester manure and methane management strategies to reduce emissions, including conversion of non-pasture dairy and livestock operations to pasture-based management and alternative manure treatment and storage practices. *
  • Provide support for producers transitioning from confinement and feedlot systems or continuous grazing to managed grazing-based systems and require a significant portion of EQIP funding spent on livestock go toward climate-smart grazing systems. *
  • Increase research and development to examine different feeds and feed additives and their impact on methane emissions from enteric fermentation.

3.  Increase Federal Capacity to Provide Technical Assistance to Farmers

USDA, land grant universities and extension, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) and retailers should collaborate to provide farmers and ranchers with technical assistance to increase adoption of climate stewardship practices.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Significantly increase support for the NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance program and increase technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as research and deployment of agricultural climate solutions. *
  • Support public-private partnerships to facilitate adoption of climate stewardship practices.
  • Prioritize climate-specific research within competitive grant research programs. *
  • Authorize the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) Network and make climate research a priority. *
  • Facilitate farmer-to-farmer education and outreach programs on climate practices. *
  • Authorize and increase funding and staffing for the regional USDA Climate Hubs. *
  • Increase funding to develop seeds, trees, and animal breeds adapted to climate change, accounting for regional differences, and establish a USDA Public Breed and Cultivar Research Activities Coordinator. *

4. Support On-Farm Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency

Farmers can reduce emissions, reduce costs, and earn more through energy efficiency improvements and the production of on-farm renewable energy.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Significantly increase funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), adding greenhouse gas pollution reduction to the program’s purpose and prioritizing projects that achieve the largest net decrease in emissions. *
  • Direct USDA to study dual-use energy systems and establish a program to provide education, outreach, and technical assistance for farmers to integrate renewable energy projects on land shared with crops or livestock. *

5. Support the Next Generation of Farmers to Create a Fair and Equitable Food System

With over 370 million acres changing hands in the next 15 years, the nation has an opportunity for the transition to prioritize climate stewardship in all communities.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Provide support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to undertake climate-friendly farming, including –
  • Make government-owned farmland available as incubator farms.
  • Provide a farmer tax credit for taxpayers who sell farming property to new, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers, and tax credits for new and beginning farmers who purchase agricultural property. *
  • Establish a federally-backed land trust to buy land from retiring farmers and sell it interest-free to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
  • Ensure that tribes have fair and equitable access to, as well as representation and participation in, all climate stewardship initiatives, programs, and funding in which states, local governments, and other interested entities can participate.
  • Engage with and support environmental justice communities on climate stewardship practices, programs, and policies.

6. Preserve Farmland From Development

Saving farmland results in multiple benefits – reducing emissions from development, retaining opportunities for carbon sequestration, and reducing pressure to put more marginal lands into production with all its attendant carbon loss.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Increasing funding for ACEP and CRP, including for farmland preservation, wetland restoration, and restoring cropland to grassland where there is high carbon sequestration potential. *
  • Prevent the federal conversion of farmland by limiting conversion of productive farm and ranch land by federal agencies or by projects using federal funds. *

7.  Reduce Food Waste and Transportation

In the U.S., 30 to 40 percent of food goes uneaten through loss or waste, increasing greenhouse gas emissionsin the process. More regional food systems have the potential to reduce transportation and energy use.  Specific recommendations include:

  • Increase funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) and create a new grant opportunity to support efforts to develop markets and processing infrastructure for commodities and farm products that improve soil health and carbon sequestration. *
  • Increase support and investments in initiatives to reduce food waste at the consumer level, on the farm, in grocery stores and restaurants, in schools, throughout the government, and in landfills. *

What’s Next?

The recommendations of the Select Committee will be debated in Congress and help focus attention on practical steps that can be taken at the federal level to combat the climate crisis.  The House will be taking up a major infrastructure measure that includes a wide variety of green energy and transportation provisions in the coming weeks.  Later, it may turn to additional climate-related legislation.  However, little Senate action, if any, is expected this year.  From here on out, most of the attention will be focused on the November elections.

What comes afterward remains to be seen, but the prospects for comprehensive climate legislation may improve, and if so, the new report will provide important template for legislative efforts, which will hopefully include a major agriculture title.

Add to that prospect the scheduled rewrite of federal food and farm programs as part of the 2023 Farm Bill, with increasing talk about the possibility of the new farm bill happening sooner than that.

Regardless of the specific timing, Congress may well have at least two major opportunities – a comprehensive climate bill and the next farm bill – to re-orient federal farm programs toward much greater support for climate-resilient conservation farming and away from subsidies that foster overproduction, specialization, consolidation and even greater climate disruption.  The agriculture section of the report of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis begins to provide some clues as to what that may entail, and is therefore an important contribution to the ongoing effort to create policies to support a more sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

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