This blog originally appeared here on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) website, and is re-posted here with permission. CalCAN is a member of NSAC and played a part in developing the original version of the Agriculture Resilience Act.
Farmers across the country are experiencing climate impacts as a crisis. From losing seed crops as wildfires rage for weeks, to losing entire crops as a result of erratic freezes, to losing farms as drought dries up available water, farmers’ risks are rising. As weather becomes more volatile because of climate change, the need to fund technical assistance, conservation projects, and research is increasingly urgent. The U.S. public, across party lines, is concerned about the impacts of climate change on agriculture and food production.
Farming is also an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. During the past several centuries, and in a rapid accelerating fashion since the 1950’s, agriculture has simplified landscapes to the point where broad expanses are devoted to single crops, contributing to immense losses of plant genetic diversity and our consequent food options. Side by side with that loss of diversity was a long growth in greenhouse gas emissions that has only recently begun to be addressed. The plowing of agricultural land during the 19th and 20th century released vast stores of carbon dioxide, only a small part of which has since been returned to the soil. And energy- and livestock-intensive farming methods since then have continued to raise the sum of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
These two challenges, however, can be addressed by the same suite of solutions. Holistic land management that builds diversity of crops and livestock, adds perennials in the form of agroforestry and deep-rooted perennial grasses like grains, keeps the soil covered and living roots in the ground, and integrates livestock into the landscape all represent highly effective climate and agriculture solutions. Moreover, they are approaches that have long been practiced by Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) land managers from around the world–including those who live here in the present-day United States. So, the expertise on these systems already exists. Targeting support to such land managers is an element of building effective climate solutions.
The Agriculture Resilience Act represents a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change in agriculture. First of its kind, the act addresses climate change throughout much of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programming–not only that which affects farmers, but elements that shape the larger food system, as well. There is broad public support for government incentive-based solutions to climate challenges in agriculture. With its focus on incentives for best practices throughout agricultural programs, the ARA represents exactly what the public, researchers, and advocates have been calling for to move agriculture toward climate resilient systems.
The role of the Agriculture Resilience Act
In the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), signed into law in 2022 and containing funding for climate and agriculture programs, it may be unclear what more is needed.
The IRA included additional–but time-limited–funding for targeting the agricultural conservation programs’ spending to greenhouse gas reductions. These four programs are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The act also includes additional funding for technical assistance for these programs. In addition, it included increased funds for the Rural Energy for America Program.
There are a few important things to understand about the IRA. Because it was a budget reconciliation bill, there were strict limitations in the degree to which it could include specific policies rather than mere budget lines. For the agricultural conservation programs, for example, it only specified greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and did not include details on how these might best be achieved. Nor did it include any consideration of how farmers need assistance to make their farms more resilient to climate impacts.
In addition, a number of aspects of addressing climate in agricultural programs were not included in the bill at all. For example, the bill does not include funding for climate and agriculture research, for supporting the meat processing systems that will create better markets for regenerative meat, for building up the local and regional marketing systems that offer outlets for sustainable products, for specifically addressing food waste and composting, or for supporting state-based conservation programs.
The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) addresses all of those additional areas that the IRA does not. Transforming the food and farming system through the above domains as well as through crop insurance, agroforestry, organic farming, farmland protection, pasture-based systems, conservation set-asides, manure management, and agrivoltaic systems, the bill creates a clear focus on farm and food system resilience.
With the continued challenges presented by climate change, agriculture needs to reduce its emissions and create systems that are more robust and flexible in the face of changing conditions. Rather than increasing overall agricultural productivity, farming needs to increase the diversity of its approaches and of the food crops grown so that there will be successful crops in all climates, even in challenging years. By focusing on increased diversity, as well as on-farm nutrient cycling, farmers can decrease their total risk as well as their spending on off-farm inputs. These are climate solutions that will sustain both farmers and the food system in spite of weather and market challenges.
The recent Rally for Resilience (see also 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) highlighted the need for climate solutions to be led by farmers, include a focus on racial justice, and uplift communities rather than enrich corporations. In coordination with related marker bills like the Justice for Black Farmers Act, the ARA works toward addressing the Rally goals. By offering increased conservation funding that specifically supports efforts toward both farm resilience and mitigation, the ARA increases the potential for farmers to receive funding for the conservation activities they choose to implement. In addition, the bill offers more targeted conservation funding for beginning farmers and farmers of color–two groups of farmers who are known to be highly motivated by conservation concerns. In its focus on expanding local processing and markets, as well as more localized nutrient cycling, the bill aims to support programs that effectively bolster local food and farm systems. Building out local systems results in increased economic benefit for farming communities.
Updates to the Agriculture Resilience Act
NSAC has written in detail about the elements of the ARA. Much of the ARA remains unchanged as it is reintroduced in the 118th Congress. In broad strokes, it is the same bill. However, there are some new ideas in the details of the latest version bill relative to how it looked in the 117th Congress. They are summarized below.
The latest version of the ARA adds perennial production systems to the climate-focused goals for agricultural research. In addition, the goals for soil health receive more focus on grass-based livestock systems and nutrient budgeting. The goals also target less productive, marginal, and degraded lands for conversion to perennial systems–both woody and grass-based systems.
The research title of the ARA encompasses changes across many of the research programs in USDA’s portfolio. The theme of the changes is creating a focus on climate adaptation and mitigation throughout all the work that they do. So, there is a special focus on adding new language to the overall mission of USDA agricultural research, as well as building up and adding focus to programs like Climate Hubs, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, the Long-term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network, and the breeding of new crop varieties and livestock breeds to address climate change adaptation needs. While much of the legislative language remains unchanged from the previous version of the bill, some specific changes in the latest version of the ARA are outlined below.
Building on past additions, including a purpose to “accelerate the ability of agriculture and the food system to first achieve net zero carbon emissions and then go further. . .” the new version of the bill adds an eleventh purpose to the USDA agricultural research, extension, and education mission. The 11th purpose is to “develop food systems that are healthful, sustainable, and resilient to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change and other potential intersecting global and national disruptions.” It also reworks language on crop and animal breeding to include delivery to farmers of new varieties and breeds as part of the mission of public breeding.
The language on Climate Hubs is altered to focus their research and education on soil health “management systems” in addition to soil health practices and to ensure that their work on grazing-based livestock management includes research on reduction of nitrous oxide emissions from manure deposited in grazing land.
The SARE program receives changes that create new agricultural resilience centers, increase the participation of historically underrepresented institutions in its research, and expand the opportunities for early-career researchers to engage in climate and agriculture work.
- It includes new definitions for climate change mitigation; early career scientist; 1890, 1994, and Hispanic-serving institutions.
- It receives an authorization for appropriations for $150 million per year for 2024 through 2028.
- The historically underrepresented institutions are given an explicit role as partners in SARE cooperative agreements.
- The terms of cooperative agreements with host institutions are also extended to 10 years, with grants limited to five years.
- The SARE program would establish two new food and agriculture resilience centers in each SARE region to bring stakeholders together to study complex questions like climate change.
- The resilience centers would focus on specific areas of ecological improvement ranging from minimizing or abating adverse climate and environmental impacts to reducing dependency on fossil fuels.
- Facilitating the adoption of year-round living cover and perennial production systems would also be part of their mandate.
- SARE’s Regional Administrative Councils would add historically underrepresented institutions and social scientists and be given the mandate to work with a diversity of stakeholders.
- A graduate fellowship and early career scientist program focused on climate change are also created within SARE.
- The information provided under the Sustainable Agriculture Technology Development and Transfer Program will include a focus on outreach and training that educates on cover crops, perennial production, integrated crop-livestock systems, ecologically-based pest management, and organic farming along with previous foci.
The new version of the ARA includes some small but important tweaks to the existing legislative language:
- Language on the LTAR network receives some minor tweaks, including language directing them to coordinate with the Climate Hubs.
- Updates to the public breed and cultivar section include more specificity in its funding sources, as well as a direction that research should focus on the development of regionally adapted breeds and cultivars.
- In the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, drought resilience and reduced greenhouse gas emissions are added to the climate mitigation and adaptation sub-program.
- The Specialty Crop Research Initiative is altered to include a focus on the development of diverse, multi-crop production systems, on ecologically-based pest management, and on adaptation strategies to severe weather.
- The previous National Academy of Sciences study on links between human and soil health has been deleted, as it is already under way.
- The Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas (ATTRA) program is given a specific mandate to work with beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (among other farmers and ranchers), with new foci including building on-farm resilience to drought, floods, other extreme weather and improving farm viability and supply chains.
- The new language also specifies that a cooperative agreement under ATTRA does not preclude a non-profit from receiving federal grants or other funds.
- ATTRA’s authorization for appropriations also rises to $8.5 million starting in 2024.
The ARA addresses soil health through a range of means, including crop insurance, working lands programs, conservation compliance, and agroforestry.
The ARA continues to offer a crop insurance risk reduction discount to reward practices known to build climate resilience. It now expands the list of practices to include compost and biochar applications, agroforestry and other perennial production systems, and ecologically based nutrient and pest management strategies like organic fertility approaches.
The ARA provisions on the working lands programs increase the programs’ focus on the most climate-resilient and greenhouse gas-mitigating practices. This iteration of the ARA includes a few key changes to further clarify and focus the programs on the approaches most likely to reduce emissions and increase resilience.
- The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), adds a focus on its assistance to producers to help them with sequestering carbon and becoming more resilient to drought and other extreme weather events.
- A definition of resource concern is added.
- There is a new prioritization for enabling producers to enter into Conservation Stewardship Program contracts.
- On-farm nutrient cycling and perennial production systems are now part of a list of new or innovative conservation approaches in Conservation Innovation Grant on-farm conservation trials
- The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) receives a definition of climate change mitigation bundles, and to the definition of conservation activities under CSP is added “bundles.”
- The definition for resource concern is also added here.
- In addition, the definition of stewardship threshold receives an addition so that natural resources should be conserved, “to a sustainable level.”
- The renewal provisions are strengthened to require that producers receive an opportunity to renew if they have met contract terms.
- Also, language clarifies that the ranking of renewal applications requires meeting the number of priority resource concerns according to their contract and to active management of ongoing conservation activities.
- The minimum payment rate is set at $2000.
- The funding and administration section is updated to indicate that a third-party technical assistance (TA) provider can include Tribal governments, and that their expertise can include soil health planning, greenhouse gas emission reduction planning, integrated pest management planning, and organic transition planning.
- This section is also updated to require that TA include perennial production systems.
- In addition, the text defines incentives.
- Finally, the details of the Federal Advisory Committee on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Carbon Sequestration Monitoring and Measurement are updated to this new name, extend the term length to three years, and to change one of the foci to creating criteria for greenhouse gas emissions reductions incentives. The purpose of measurement systems now include estimation of uncertainty, and the guidance on which sets of information the committee relies on is slightly altered.
The Treasury’s study to develop a tax credit to incentivize soil carbon sequestration has been removed from the bill to reduce complications in which Congressional committee oversees the bill.
Reinforcement and expansion of conservation compliance is one of the most significant conservation measures in the ARA, with an expansion of conservation compliance to all cropland and the inclusion of soil health measures as an element of conservation compliance. With the major role that erosion plays in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, the ARA compliance provisions are vital to addressing agriculture’s emissions. There are a couple of minor updates in the latest version of the legislation. Conservation compliance receives a minor edit to include soil health management treatment measures in its conservation plans. The extension of conservation compliance to all cropland is further clarified.
Another important approach that represents a significant move toward both reducing emissions and increasing resilience is agroforestry. The ARA creates three new agroforestry research centers to add to the existing single research center. The latest version of the legislation tweaks a few details. The section on expansion of the National Agroforestry Research Centers is given a definition of agroforestry, and the program is partially targeted toward using agroforestry as a means to protect semiarid and fragile agroecosystems. A grants program is created at each center to support agroforestry projects.
Farmland Preservation and Farm Viability
This title of the ARA addresses several means of supporting farm viability and reducing the conversion of farmland to other uses. By creating a Local Agriculture Marketing program for farm viability and climate resilience centers, it would expand markets for products that will reduce emissions and improve farms’ robustness to climate impacts. The title also increases the organic cost share payment to help reduce the burden of paperwork on organic farmers–who represent a key set of farmers responding to climate change prerogatives. In addition, the title reduces the conversion of farmland to higher-emission, non-farm uses by strengthening the Farmland Protection Policy Act and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. A few changes are made to this title in the new version of the legislation:
- The organic certification cost share rises to $1,500.
- A former provision is deleted. It would have excluded from gross income the gain from selling farm property to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers or selling qualified conservation easements.
This title of the bill includes the improvement of animal-raising claims to make them more verifiable and it substantially improves small-scale poultry and meat processing. It also increases the funding for and tightens the focus of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative so that it provides cooperative agreements for those who need technical assistance on grazing. Further, it builds out the Grasslands 30 pilot program that would support 30-year contracts for key grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program. Finally, it creates a program to help producers shift toward dry management of manure. This title receives some updates in the 118th Congress:
- The Processing Resilience Grant program provisions are updated to align with the Strengthening Local Processing Act.
- The Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative is updated to allow for producers to receive technical assistance for planning, and grants for partnerships are shifted to cooperative agreements. In addition, the program language now provides funded “training” rather than “self-help.”
- Under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the provisions on the Grasslands 30 program now allow for someone with an expiring CRP Grasslands contract to enroll the land in a Grassland 30 contract.
- The provisions of the Alternative Manure Management program are updated to align with an upcoming marker bill.
On-farm renewable energy
This title of the ARA improves the ability of farmers and other rural and agricultural stakeholders to implement renewable energy systems and reduce energy use–both of which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By improving the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to make more entities eligible to carry out energy audits, it expands opportunities for energy conservation. The program also gains a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the cost-share for grants is reduced to make them more accessible, especially for farmers of color. The title also creates a new agrivoltaic research and demonstration program to enable better combined use of agricultural land for both renewable energy and farming–an approach that has wide-ranging benefits for farmers and for energy production. This version of the legislation includes some minor modifications to the REAP provisions and a substantial addition to the agrivoltaic section.
- The REAP provisions are updated to include a note that in developing carbon measures, the USDA should create, “accurate methods for assigning greenhouse gas emissions values, including land use change.”
- The provisions for agrivoltaic (formerly dual-use) systems are updated to clarify that areas of research for a study of agrivoltaic systems should include assessments of appropriate animal and plant breeds for agrivoltaic systems, as well as assessments of land that is best suited. It should also review the unique needs of scaling up agrivoltaic systems, their crop insurance needs, their local marketing supports, and how conservation, renewable energy, and tax credit programs can support them.
- Further, a new research and demonstration program is added to the agrivoltaic proposal that would investigate and demonstrate such systems in multiple regions of the U.S.
Food loss and waste
The food loss and waste title reduces methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from food “waste” through several means: it reduces food waste up front by creating better food labeling and donation practices, it creates improved composting systems, and it helps schools reduce their waste overall. Alongside these changes are a national media campaign to reduce food waste and improvements to the food waste research program at USDA. A few minor changes made to this current version of the legislation include:
- In the provisions on composting as a conservation practice, language is clarified around the use of waste for compost on farms and around who decides whether a community is “nearby” when it comes to bringing organic waste to a farm–USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency will share responsibility.
- New additions to this section include a national media campaign to decrease food waste and the establishment of a food waste research program managed by the Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison at USDA.
The ARA addresses a range of USDA programming in climate and agriculture. Across all of these areas, the focus of the bill is on building a diverse and resilient system that reduces the negative repercussions of climate change and that curtails agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Drafted in response to the recommendations of climate and agriculture research, the ARA provisions also represent an answer to increasing public concern about climate impacts. Substantial public support now exists for addressing agricultural conservation concerns through government incentives. The ARA provides a pathway toward placing widely-supported climate solutions into the next farm bill.