Senate farm bill proposal makes climate a USDA priority

If enacted, the detailed farm bill proposal released last week by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) would finally make it a permanent Department of Agriculture priority to support farmers harmed by the extreme weather caused by climate change. 

The Senate proposal would ensure that the climate guardrails included in the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, would apply to future conservation investments when that spending expires. The proposal would also update long-standing programs for farmers to ensure their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions get treated with the same urgency as other USDA priorities, such as reducing soil erosion and improving water quality and wildlife habitat. 

The Senate proposal would:

  • Modernize the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, to consider carbon sequestration potential when reviewing applications.
  • Expand the USDA’s capacity to secure long-term and permanent easements through the CRP, which will help build soil carbon, and increase CRP payments to farmers when the agency enrolls hard-to-farm land. 
  • Modernize the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, to create a new focus on reducing methane from animals and their waste, to consider emissions reductions when providing incentives for better farm stewardship, and to recognize the risk that some farmers may lose income when they try to reduce emissions.  
  • Modernize the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, so it considers greenhouse gas emissions when it reviews applications. 
  • Make reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and building soil carbon a goal of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, which pays groups of farmers to address environmental challenges together, and use RCPP grants to support efforts to convert concentrated animal feeding operations to “climate friendly” operations, such as managed grazing. 
  • Require the USDA to periodically update the standards it uses to decide which practices to fund, and double USDA funding to research innovative practices that reduce emissions and build soil carbon.
  • Require the USDA to develop a standard method for measuring soil carbon and create a new program to inventory soil carbon changes.    

Many of these proposals are bipartisan priorities included in bills that had been introduced by Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Todd Young (R-Ind.), and Roger Marshall (R-Kan.).

Members of the House of Representatives have also championed many of these proposals. They include Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), David Valadao (R-Calif.), Mike Bost (R-Ill.), Zach Nunn (R-Iowa) and Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.). 

Although practices that reduce soil erosion or address water quality and wildlife habitat can also reduce emissions and build soil carbon, the USDA was not required to consider climate change until enactment of the IRA, in 2022. EWG has found that little of the funding for programs such as EQIP  and CSP previously flowed to practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that many acres of farmland planted with grasses and trees through the CRP were later plowed up, releasing soil carbon back into the atmosphere.

Protecting the climate guardrails in the IRA and making farmer efforts to address climate change a purpose of USDA programs like EQIP, CSP and RCPP is important to farmers seeking conservation assistance. After the enactment of the IRA, farmer demand for climate-smart spending surged as they sought to reduce emissions to make their farms “climate ready.” But recent USDA data shows that more than 60 percent of farmers are still being turned away when they seek this assistance. 

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farming is not just critical to avoiding a climate catastrophe. It’s also key to avoiding a political catastrophe for our farmers. Unless the industry acts, agriculture could soon become the top source of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, at more than 30 percent.

The conservation reforms included in the Senate bill are important to the USDA, which has struggled to make climate change a priority. Under pressure from some legislators, the department is giving some climate-smart funds to projects that may or may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including irrigation projects. If Congress were to exclude from the final farm bill the legislative guardrails included in the IRA bill, the USDA might revert to past practice, when just one-fifth of its conservation funding flowed to practices that reduced greenhouse gas emissions. 

Unlike the detailed Senate proposal, a framework released by the House Agriculture Committee last week would not retain the guardrails and does not mention climate change. 

At a time of growing farmer demand for climate-smart funding, Congress should ensure that support for farmers lowering nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer, and methane emissions from animals and their waste, is a top priority for the USDA.


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