How to make climate change a priority in the next farm bill

Next year, Congress will renew the farm bill, which provides funding to our farmers and ranchers. 

Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, annual spending by the Department of Agriculture on farm stewardship practices will increase from $6 billion to $10 billion, including at least $4 billion for practices designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Agriculture is a significant and growing source of greenhouse emissions. Emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizing crops and animal feed, and of methane from livestock and their manure, are growing – and powerful – greenhouse gases. Scientists warn that if we don’t reduce agriculture’s emissions of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane, we will fail to achieve the greenhouse gas reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Voluntary conservation programs administered by the USDA could play a big role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – and help ensure farms are better able to withstand the extreme weather caused by climate change. What’s more, conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions can also improve air and water quality and provide habitat for wildlife. 

Until Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the USDA was turning away two out of every three farmers seeking conservation assistance designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

But more funding alone will not meet the challenge. Right now, most of the funding provided to farms that get USDA conservation assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, or the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP, has done little to reduce greenhouse emissions. 

For example: 

  • Just 23 percent of EQIP funding supports practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and some EQIP funding supports practices that increase emissions. 
  • More than 70 percent of EQIP funding flows to structural practices, like irrigation infrastructure, that do not lower emissions. 
  • Methane is a significant source of emissions, but between 2017 and 2020, just $54,000 flowed to EQIP practices designed to improve feed management.
  • Just 15 states opted to provide EQIP bonus payments for practices that cut greenhouse gas emissions, and 14 states provided bonus payments to practices that increase emissions. 
  • Almost 40 percent of CSP practices offered between 2017 and 2022 scored poorly for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Many common CSP practices – including the CSP practice receiving the most CSP funding – do not lower greenhouse emissions. 
  • Many of the CSP practices that score well for reducing emissions, such as no-till to reduce soil erosion, receive very little funding
  • Most CRP acres are returned to production after contracts expire, releasing soil carbon back into the atmosphere, and the number of acres enrolled in long-term Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program agreements is falling.
  • Farmers who protect farmland from development through enrollment in ACEP are not required to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The historic funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act for conservation practices could help lower the backlog of farmers offering to reduce emissions. But to fulfill the law’s promise, Congress must also reform these programs to ensure funding flows to practices that reduce greenhouse gases.

To make climate change the focus of USDA conservation programs, Congress must: 

  • Make CSP a Climate Stewardship Program. Congress should reform the CSP to make the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions its primary purpose. Congress should reward “early adopters” by linking CSP eligibility to past climate stewardship; focusing funding on practices that reduce emissions; and prioritizing contracts to reward those that include multiple emissions-reduction practices.
  • Reform EQIP to make climate a top priority. Congress should expand and reform the EQIP to make climate the primary purpose of its incentive contracts. In particular, Congress should provide only 90 percent cost-share for EQIP practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions; reduce federal cost-sharing for structural practices that provide few or no environmental benefits; and prohibit EQIP spending on practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Reform CRP to favor long-term contracts. Congress should expand and reform CRP by increasing program funding – and by focusing CRP enrollment on marginal, environmentally sensitive land through long-term and permanent easements. In general, 80 percent of CRP acres should be enrolled through CLEAR-30, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program agreements, or continuous enrollment categories. 
  • Reform ACEP to require climate stewardship. Congress should reform ACEP by increasing funding for wetland reserve easements – and by making past and future climate stewardship a condition for enrollment in Agricultural Land Easements.

U.S. agriculture currently accounts for at least 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. When we factor in emissions from fertilizer production, as well as emissions from land clearing and plowing, agriculture’s share of U.S. emissions is even higher. 

As U.S. emissions from energy and transportation continue to fall in response to new policies, and emissions from fertilizer and animals continue to grow due to rising animal protein demand, agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis will steadily increase. Unlike most other sectors of the economy, agriculture’s share of greenhouse gas emissions has increased since 2000. Unless climate becomes the focus of USDA conservation programs, that share could soon account for 30 percent of U.S. emissions. 

The next farm bill is our best chance to change the direction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.

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