Spotlight: Climate-Related Marker Bills for the Upcoming Farm Bill

Posted on Tuesday, August 15th, 2023 by Renata Brillinger
U.S. Congress Building at Night Photo by MIKE STOLL on Unsplash

CalCAN is one of hundreds of sustainable, organic, and family farming organizations across the country that is engaged in farm bill advocacy this year.

The Crucial Role of Farm Bill Advocacy

The farm bill covers a wide range of agriculture and nutrition policy that has a huge impact on how our food is grown and who has access to it, and what resources farmers and ranchers will have for conservation practices, crop insurance, research, and much more. The original farm bill was enacted during the 1930s in part as a response to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and was an element of President Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The farm bill gets passed about every five years, and the current bill expires on Sept. 30, 2023.

The farm bill is a complex piece of legislation, and marker bills are one tool that is used to advance new programs and policies. Marker bills are sponsored by members of Congress and introduced like any other bill, but they are not intended to pass as standalone legislation. Instead, they get debated and advocates build support for the bills to demonstrate support for them with the intention of getting them included in the eventual farm bill that gets signed into law.

Below is a summary of the marker bills that have been introduced to accelerate the use of on-farm practices that have climate benefits. They are supported by CalCAN, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), and many of our partners.

Summary of Marker Bills

Converting Our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act

This bill would set up a new program in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions on dairy and other livestock operations. It would cover the cost of installing equipment and infrastructure for dry scraping manure or separating solids to produce compost for bedding, for application to fields as a substitute for chemical fertilizer, or for sale. Transitioning to or increasing pasture-based production would also be eligible. The program is modeled on California’s popular Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP) which CalCAN has championed since it launched in 2017.

These improvements are profitable for dairy farmers and they improve the efficiency of their operations. They also have environmental benefits such as preventing nitrate contamination in groundwater and improving air quality. Though the USDA provides funding for dairy digesters used by the largest dairies, there are no resources for small and medium-sized operations.

Sponsors: H.R. 4327 was introduced by Jim Costa (D-CA), David Valadao (R-CA), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and the Senate companion bill S. 2479 was introduced by Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

To support: Sign on to this support letter. Learn more about the COWS Act and current supporters here

Note: This bill is being championed by CalCAN, NSAC, Organic Valley and the National Farmers Union. Stay tuned for more details in an upcoming CalCAN blog!


Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act

The Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act is an important climate adaptation tool for agriculture. It would create a $75 million carveout in USDA research grants for the development of new public seeds and animal breeds that are regionally-adapted and publicly available. It would also establish a coordinator position to develop a strategy for public cultivar research and an interagency working group informed by stakeholders to coordinate activities of the multiple research agencies. These investments would help farmers confront drought and varying growing conditions by providing improved plant and animal varieties that are developed to suit their specific regions’ growing conditions. Not only will this effort increase hardiness and yields for farmers, but it will also enable the U.S. to maintain a robust and resilient food and agricultural system. 

Public plant and animal breeding programs are facing shrinking budgets, declining institutional support, increased labor and land costs, and little federal investments. Over the past several decades, universities across the country have reduced, or even eliminated, their public plant and animal breeding programs, causing a shortage of classically bred cultivars and breeds developed specifically for unique regional conditions. 

Sponsors: Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tina Smith (D-MN), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR)

See here for more information.


Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) Act

This bill will direct USDA to coordinate and expand the budget for organic agriculture research and organic data collection. It will improve access for organic agriculture producers to the tools, research, and collaborations they need to thrive. Organic farms have been shown to have lower net greenhouse gas emissions than conventional farms, and California’s climate scoping plan includes a target of 20 percent of the state’s farmland under organic cultivation by 2045.

Sponsors: Representatives Dan Newhouse (WA-04), Jimmy Panetta (CA-19), and Chellie Pingree (ME-01) 

See here for more information.


Opportunities in Organic Act

The bill would expand the existing National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program to increase financial support and technical assistance for socially-disadvantaged, beginning, and smaller-scale farmers and ranchers to make the transition to organic agriculture. It would increase cost-share payments for certification costs and provide resources for organic capacity and partnerships at public institutions and NGOs, including support for education, outreach, and market expansion.

Lead Sponsors: Representatives Alma Adams (NC-12) and Jimmy Panetta (CA-19), and Senator Peter Welch (D-VT)

See here for more information.


Agriculture Resilience Act

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) represents a comprehensive approach to addressing climate change in agriculture and sets a bold vision of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by the year 2040. The bill addresses climate change throughout much of USDA programming–not only that which affects farmers, but elements that shape the larger food system, as well. It was first introduced in 2022 and then re-introduced in 2023. The marker bills above originated in the ARA.

To reach net-zero agricultural emissions within the next 20 years, the ARA focuses on the following six policy areas:

  1. Increasing research
  2. Improving soil health
  3. Protecting existing farmland and supporting farm viability
  4. Supporting pasture-based livestock systems
  5. Boosting investments in on-farm energy initiatives
  6. Reducing food waste

Sponsors: Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

See here for more information.

Looking Ahead

The marker bills highlighted here are part of a vision to address the climate crisis and its impacts on our food system. As we approach the expiration of the current farm bill and the subsequent decisions that will shape our food system, it’s crucial to remain engaged, informed, and supportive of these initiatives. We encourage you to connect with us on social media and to visit our Campaign page regularly for updates and ways to engage in these advocacy efforts!

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