For farmers, historic $20 billion climate spending could save more than the planet

Historic $20 billion spending, in the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, to reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture could not only save the planet, it might also help preserve the good will most Americans have for farmers.

The money will be the Department of Agriculture’s part of the IRA’s landmark $369 billion in climate funding.

Despite farming’s myriad environmental harms – including everything from wasting water during droughts to polluting drinking water supplies with farm chemicals to destroying habitat for rare species – Americans have a soft spot for farmers. Nearly nine in 10 Americans tell pollsters they trust farmers, and most think farmers take sustainability seriously.

But that good will could be in jeopardy if the USDA squanders the $20 billion in new spending. Congress passed the bill earlier this month, and President Joe Biden is poised to sign it into law today.

Over the past two decades, every sector of the U.S. economy has reduced greenhouse gas emissions but one – agriculture. If expected trends continue, farming’s share of greenhouse gases could increase from at least 10 percent today to 20 percent by the end of the decade.

Experts warn that expected increases in these emissions may make a climate crisis unavoidable. The $20 billion funding can help – if it’s spent properly on cutting greenhouse gases. Wasting the money on practices that don’t actually slash emissions is the worst possible outcome.

How the USDA spends the biggest investment in farmland stewardship since the Dust Bowl will affect more than the future of the planet. It will also determine the political future of farmers.

There’s reason to worry the USDA will blow this chance. Right now, most USDA conservation programs do not do enough to address the climate crisis.

  • Just one-fifth of funding provided by the USDA’s Environment Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, flows to practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Some EQIP spending flows to practices that increase emissions.
  • When given the chance to pick “priority” practices eligible for bonus payments under EQIP, many states picked practices that increase greenhouse gases.

These problems are not limited to EQIP. Fewer than half the practices funded by the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Half of the acres fallowed through the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, are plowed up after short-term contracts expire, releasing soil carbon back into the atmosphere. The number of acres fallowed through long-term contracts through the CRP has fallen in recent years.

Although the USDA has pledged to make farming’s greenhouse gases a priority – including spending $1 billion to measure the climate benefits of various farm stewardship practices – the agency has been slow to reform conservation programs like EQIP, CSP and CRP.

Now, in the rush to push historic funding out the door, the agency will be pressured to deem practices “climate smart” that do little or nothing to reduce greenhouse gases.

If the USDA gives in to the inevitable pressure to offer farmers funding for practices that may not help, it will forfeit a once-in-a-generation chance to change the trajectory of emissions from agriculture.

For the sake of the planet – and for the reputation of our farmers – the White House and top USDA officials must ensure these funds aren’t wasted. Congress must also reform conservation programs to make climate change a priority when the farm bill is up for renewal next year.

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