Federal Action on Climate Change

by Ryan Nebeker

3/05/20

The impacts of climate change on agriculture are getting more and more noticeable: last year’s record flooding across the Midwest led to massive crop insurance payouts for farmers who couldn’t plant in saturated soils, and extreme heat across the great plains only added to the damage. With more spring flooding forecast across the plains and a looming drought in California, it’s clear that federal action on climate is necessary to keep American farms afloat in the future. While the USDA was careful to avoid using the term “climate change” in their newly unveiled Agriculture Innovation Agenda, its plan promises to “increase production by 40 percent while cutting the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050.” 

But the USDA can’t accomplish these targets alone. What will federal action on climate change look like in practice? Here we showcase a few of the current proposed approaches, some based on agency policy and some on new legislation, that the government could use to help farmers tackle the immense task of climate change adaptation. What does each proposal entail and how would these levers work together to address climate change and food production?

USDA’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda

That plan, outlined by USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue 2 weeks ago, outlines three main goals.

Create a Comprehensive US Agriculture Innovation Strategy

Work with public and private researchers to identify the biggest knowledge gaps in sustainable agriculture.

Integrate the Latest Innovative Conservation Technologies

Streamline the approval process for programs that help farmers plan and pay for conservation.

Improve USDA Data Collection and Reporting

Review the conservation data the USDA already collects and assessing what new types of data need to be collected, like possible surveys of soil carbon or more on-farm water quality reporting.

 

The plan does set some specific benchmarks, such as reducing food waste by 50% and reducing nutrient pollution to waterways by 30%, but a few key goals are left without targets; the plan simply identifies a “net reduction” for greenhouse gases, and a goal to “enhance carbon sequestration” in soil. More significantly, the Innovation Agenda doubles down on controversial ethanol policy by setting a target for 30% ethanol inclusion in transportation fuel by 2050. Critics say ethanol standards just subsidize environmentally destructive industrial corn production and do little to help transition away from fossil fuel usage. 

The Agriculture Innovation Agenda differs from some other approaches in that it isn’t new legislation that depends on congressional approval — it outlines rule changes within the agency that could help them meet their goals. This means that the USDA could move very quickly, and the agenda does give some action items for the first year. But at the moment, it lacks more specific information on what it intends to change to keep up the momentum and meet its benchmarks. 

The Agricultural Resistance Act

Maine representative Chellie Pingree is very involved in agricultural and environmental policy, having already introduced legislation to combat food waste in schools and preserve carbon-storing ocean habitats like kelp forests. Last week, she introduced the Agricultural Resistance Act in the House, which adds significantly more detail than the USDA’s plan, but works along similar lines by focusing on existing USDA programs. The bill proposes to reach net zero emissions in agriculture by 2040 through a series of changes that would:

Increase Research Funding

Use USDA’s existing programs to speed up research on climate change adaptation. 

Improve Soil Health 

Create a new grant program that pays farmers for adopting good soil health practices like cover cropping that would reduce pollution and store carbon.

Protect Existing Farmland

Provide grants and modify tax code to help farmers hold on to land, especially for minority populations who have been historically excluded from ownership.

Support Pasture-Based Livestock

Introduce new grant programs to help small, pasture-based meat producers regenerate soils and produce an affordable product. 

Increase On-Farm Energy Generation

Provide assistance through the USDA’s conservation arm to help more farms (not just large ones) install systems like methane digesters that generate energy and cut emissions.

Reduce Food Waste

Standardize food labels to eliminate confusion around expiration dates and funding composting and digesting projects to help cut food waste-related methane emissions. 

 

In an interview with Civil Eats, Pingree said her intention in writing the bill was to provide tangible plans that legislators and the USDA can adapt as they look forward to the next budget cycle and start crafting the next Farm Bill. She doesn’t necessarily expect the bill to pass through Congress completely intact, but even a partial adoption of her plan would mark a dramatic increase of USDA funding towards both research and on-farm support. 

Climate Stewardship Act 

Another legislative proposal, the Climate Stewardship Act was introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker. Unlike Pingree’s plan, which focuses solely on agriculture, the Climate Stewardship act also includes proposals for forestry, which the USDA also oversees. Booker’s proposal also leans more on new programs rather than updating existing ones. As outlined by Booker’s office, the main goals of the plan include: 

Plant Over 16 Billion Trees by 2050

Provide grants to federal, state, and local agencies to plant trees across the country, especially focusing on planting more trees in cities, where they can limit urban heat island effects that are felt most strongly in low-income neighborhoods. 

Reduce or Offset Agricultural Emissions by One-Third by 2025

Expand on-farm conservation programs that help farmers generate power, reduce emissions, and implement sustainable practices like rotational grazing. 

Invest in Local and Regional Food Systems to Increase Resilience in Rural and Urban Communities

Expand funding for grant programs that develop regional food hubs and farmers’ markets.

Restore or Protect Over 2 million Acres of Coastal Wetlands by 2030

Establish grant programs to fund research and restoration projects for wetlands that act as natural buffers against flooding in coastal states. 

Reestablish the Civilian Conservation Corps

Bring back a Great Depression-era program that employed thousands in conservation-related infrastructure projects across the country. 

 

Like Pingree’s bill, the Climate Stewardship Act establishes a framework that legislators could use as they create annual budgets or draft the next farm bill. While it sits separate from the rest of the legislation, Booker’s proposal aligns closely with the goals of the Green New Deal. 

What about the Green New Deal?

Made famous by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal is a bigger package of climate change and energy legislation. Rather than creating programs directly, the legislation is a resolution that acknowledges the government’s responsibility to create a greener economy. It lays out some big targets, like reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 worldwide, and proposes job-creating programs (like Booker’s new Civilian Conservation Corps) to reach them. It does address agriculture in general terms, aiming to “eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions” from agriculture by supporting family farms, sustainable farming and soil health, and building a more sustainable food system.

While the resolution was shot down in the Senate, the general concept of the Green New Deal lives on in the form of more specific bills in focusing on housing and other issues. If a broader Green New Deal resolution is successful in the future, this could help set targets for agriculture-specific legislation and help agencies like USDA set future agendas similar to the Ag Innovation Plan.

The USDA’s announcement signals it’s ready to start working on addressing this critical issue, but it’s only the first step. Federal policy is a complicated back-and-forth between legislators who set priorities and funding and agencies that design and implement programs, which requires compromise and adaptation. Effective federal action on climate change and agriculture will likely integrate aspects of all of these plans, incorporating bold ideas and needed funding from the legislature while relying on more detailed implementation strategies from the USDA.

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