Farmers and Advocates See Opportunity for Climate Action and Racial Equity in the Upcoming Farm Bill

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 4/10/23, Last updated: 4/10/23

Early in March, hundreds of farmers, farmworkers and activists met in Washington, D.C. to march and meet with lawmakers over the upcoming farm bill. The farm bill, a broad package of legislation that sets the country’s food and agriculture policy, is once again up for reauthorization. Because the bill outlines the USDA’s spending on loan programs, conservation measures, subsidies and more, it’s the biggest opportunity lawmakers have to change the policy that governs our food system. But in past farm bill cycles, climate action has been largely neglected despite growing calls from scientists that food systems need to be reformed to slow climate change.

Instead of business as usual, advocates are asking that Congress prioritize the needs of farmers who are doing things the right way by funding programs that support new farmers, reward farmers who practice regenerative agriculture and rectify the racial injustices that have led to the loss of so many Black and Indigenous-owned farms.

What is the Farm Bill?

The farm bill is a large package of connected legislation that covers almost every aspect of food, nutrition and agriculture policy in the U.S. This includes everything you might imagine goes into something called the farm bill — subsidy programs, conservation measures and technical assistance for farmers, for example — but by far the largest portion of the bill covers federal nutrition assistance programs, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other emergency food assistance measures.

Some of the farm bill’s funds also go towards conservation programs, which have traditionally paid farmers not to farm. Many farms contain land near waterways or on steep slopes that are highly vulnerable to erosion, for example, and giving farmers funds in exchange for an agreement that they won’t farm them helps stabilize soils. Similar programs exist for protecting grassland and wetland habitat. There are also a number of “working lands” conservation programs that help farmers fund projects that reduce their environmental footprint, like cover cropping, adopting no-till or putting better manure management plans into place.

Many of these programs have benefits to climate: leaving land undisturbed helps sequester carbon in soil, and the list of approved projects under working lands conservation programs has expanded to include more climate-oriented projects in recent years. But these are financially small programs that focus most explicitly on soil retention and water quality; by and large, climate change adaptation and mitigation have been largely ignored in the farm bill. As climate advocates argue, many of the bill’s usual provisions actually double down on emissions intensive farming methods, adding incentives for producers to get even bigger whether they’re growing row crops or raising animals in a factory farm setting. But beyond the opportunity to correct some of these incentives, advocates for sustainable agriculture say a new approach to the farm bill could have big benefits for climate-smart agriculture and the people who practice it. Doing so, however, would require some major policy shifts away from big agribusiness interests and towards small farmers, farmworkers and other more marginalized voices within the food system.

How the Farm Bill Works Against Common Sense Climate Policy

Farmers’ choices about what to plant, decisions about how to run their farms and ability to finance their operations are heavily dependent on policy that’s laid out in the farm bill. Historically, policies that help cover the cost of raising certain crops (often referred to as subsidies) have been the primary policy driver of  farmers’ behavior. Economists try to balance what’s beneficial for farmers with what’s least disruptive to markets, so the exact method for delivering those subsidies has shifted over time: policies in earlier farm bills gave farmers direct payments for crops they were growing, or, to minimize economic disruption, awarded payments based on what the farm had previously been growing. But as both of these methods tended to distort farmers’ planting behavior away from what markets actually demanded, they were replaced with other methods. Today, subsidies look more like loans that allow farmers to wait to sell crops until market conditions improve, or take the form of insurance policies that cover crops from both disaster or low prices, essentially guaranteeing income regardless of what happens in a market.

Critically, however, these policies have only been available for commodity crops: widely-planted staples like corn, wheat, soy, cotton and peanuts, much of which goes into feeding livestock. These crops tend to be produced in large-scale monocultures, areas of low biodiversity that usually require extensive chemical use to grow and harvest. From an environmental standpoint, this tilt towards commodities heavily favors the planting of inputs for factory farm feed, which has an outsized climate footprint compared to crops that are produced for direct human consumption. In contrast, the fruits and vegetables that Americans are advised to eat more of have historically been excluded from commodity support and crop insurance programs.  And because the calculation of payouts for various programs isn’t always based on planting in a current year, farmers might be dissuaded from switching to other crops that might have a lighter load on the environment, functionally locking large tracts of land into an endless loop of corn and soy production.

Advocates for small farms have also pointed out that crop insurance and other subsidy programs aren’t well distributed, and may also be helping large farms get bigger and push smaller farmers out of agriculture. Conservation programs are even contributing to this: because the USDA is likely to fund high-impact projects first, big polluters like CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) often take a large chunk of money that’s then unavailable to smaller farmers trying to do things right. For many of these projects, like methane manure digesters, sustainability claims are dubious because they amount to a government subsidy of a fundamentally unsustainable factory farm.

How the Farm Bill Could Help Slow Climate Change

Several organizations have published their priorities for the farm bill, and there are many common demands. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), an alliance of organizations that work to make sustainable agriculture more viable in the U.S., highlighted the need to expand funding for existing conservation programs in its 2023 Farm Bill Platform, along with a push to expand the list of approved practices and projects to be more inclusive of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. Funding was slashed in the 2014 iteration of the bill and never increased to its former levels. Increasing funding, along with instituting benefit caps based on farm size, would increase the number of farmers who can benefit from these programs, potentially adding more land to conservation easements and expanding practices like cover cropping.

Expanding funding also needs to be tied with expanding the range of projects that conservation funds can support. At present, proven strategies that help retain soil carbon, such as agroforestry, perennial crops and rotational grazing receive some support, but not from every program and not at a funding level that makes them able to help all the farmers who want to participate. Making these more rewarding for farmers to implement, along with adding support for new methods, could dramatically increase uptake of these practices on farms nationwide. As HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance pointed out in their farm bill priorities statement, expanding the list to be more friendly to regenerative and agroecological farms is only half the battle: ending support for potentially counterproductive conservation practices like methane digesters, carbon offsetting and carbon trading projects is also necessary to making the next farm bill genuinely carbon friendly.

Groups like HEAL and NSAC also highlighted the need to increase funding for research and extension services that help train farmers on sustainable techniques. These services already exist, but without special direction to expand into sustainable agriculture, often lack the capacity to help farmers who aren’t just growing commodity row crops.

Notably, most of these propositions rely on rewarding or compensating farmers for voluntary changes. That approach has formed the bulk of U.S. environmental policy towards agriculture, and most of the conventional agricultural lobby has fought hard to make regulation a dirty word. But some of the propositions from NSAC and others point to another strategy that could help move the needle without banning harmful practices outright: making some kinds of government support contingent on farmers adopting sustainable practices, like making access to some crop insurance programs conditional on farms having a soil management plan in place. This type of conditional support avoids what economists call “moral hazard,” where support like insurance or subsidies removes any incentive to avoid the risks associated with bad land stewardship. If conditions like this were built into more farm bill programs, they could help offset the way that current subsidy programs incentivize unsustainable farming.

But more direct regulation isn’t off the table either: HEAL’s priorities included bans on practices that support CAFO expansion, like preventative antibiotic use and more stringent limits on air and water pollution from factory farms. Another popular proposal among sustainable agriculture groups is more stringent enforcement of antitrust laws. Between a tightly consolidated meatpacking system that leaves ranchers with few affordable alternatives to factory feedlots and slaughterhouses and a seed industry where a few giant agrochemical companies lock farmers into contracts that ban seed saving and mandate heavy chemical use, the lack of consolidation enforcement has worked to the detriment of food system emissions. With multiple propositions that would ban further mergers and even force companies to split, groups like HEAL and NSAC argue that getting farmers out of a currently hard-to-avoid relationship with big agribusiness would slow the forward march of destructive industrial agriculture.

Centering Voices of Marginalized People

Climate change may affect the entire planet, but its burdens fall unequally, making an approach that integrates racial and economic justice vital to effective action. As speakers at the March rally pointed out, it’s marginalized people who are already bearing the outsized costs of climate change on the food system: farmworkers who have no comprehensive guidelines for working in heatwaves and who risk lung damage working near drought-induced wildfires, farmers of color who can’t bear the financial burden of crop failures after systemic exclusion from USDA assistance, and low income people who can’t cope with the rising costs of food. With so much at stake, marginalized voices should get a more prominent seat at the table when it comes to farm bill negotiations that too often happen with lobbyists behind closed doors. With this in mind, participants and speakers at March’s rally led with demands for racial justice and representation, carrying signs voicing support for Black farmers and demands for food sovereignty.

But repairing the damage done to marginalized communities by current and historical farm policy is only part of why inclusion is so important. As Julieta Saucedo, an agroecological farmer and community educator with La Semilla Food Center in New Mexico pointed out in her address to the rally, “for generations, those who have been in the closest relationship with soil and with land have been the ones who have been sidelined, unsupported and criminalized,” drawing a through line from the dispossession of Black and Indigenous farmers to the current state of environmental degradation we see coming from industrial agriculture today.

"For generations, those who have been in the closest relationship with soil and with land have been the ones who have been sidelined, unsupported and criminalized.”

Julieta Saucedo

Agroecological Farmer and Community Educator, La Semilla Food Center

But even as policymakers begin to consider the environment in farm policy, they often neglect BIPOC farmers.  A long history of discrimination from the USDA, combined with a limited set of funding that goes largely to industrial farms, means that BIPOC farmers are often left uncompensated for traditional practices that other farmers are rewarded for. As Saucedo put it,  “instead of being supported by policies for the work we’re already doing in our communities, this support is going to big ag so they can appropriate and implement these agroecological practices that we, for so many generations, have been practicing.”

So what would genuine support for BIPOC farmers look like? Validating traditional practices and giving communities sovereignty is a good place to start. As the Native Farm Bill Coalition suggested in a recent report, this could look like modifying the bill’s conservation title to allow tribes to use Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) to develop their own standards and projects, giving them sovereignty over how best to steward their land rather than trying to appeal to a narrow list of federal priorities.

Of course, that opportunity is mostly meaningless if BIPOC producers can’t farm. As Saucedo said, “we need to validate [traditional knowledge] with land access,” pointing to one of the biggest barriers faced by socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers. This also includes improving access to capital through loan programs that aim to specifically help farmers of color, mirroring long-stalled efforts to give debt relief to Black farmers. Making USDA services more accessible in languages other than English and offering more flexibility with remote assistance would also go a long way to removing barriers towards BIPOC farmers getting the support they need, but would require addressing the chronic understaffing of agencies that tight farm bill budgets have forced.

Is the Farm Bill the Only Way Forward?

It’s clear that the farm bill could become a more effective tool in the fight against climate change. But with a deeply divided Congress, is that really feasible? With conservatives set on cutting nutrition benefits or even removing them from the bill entirely, keeping many of the farm bills established tenets in place looks like it could be more of an uphill battle than usual. And given that some high ranking members of Congress have expressed their intention to ensure that “the farm bill doesn’t become a climate bill,” progress on climate may be even harder.

This doesn’t mean that the farm bill is the only option for climate progress in federal farm policy. 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act included a $20 billion dollar increase in funding for climate-related projects over the next five years, to be administered by the USDA. And while conservatives in Congress are fighting to restrict the agency’s access to the money, it does show that alternative approaches can help supply some of the funding that doesn’t make it through the farm bill itself.

There are also other pieces of legislation that could operate outside the traditional farm bill. Some are so overarching that they aim to replace the traditional farm bill entirely, like the recently introduced Food and Farm Act, which contains alternative proposals centered around sustainable agriculture and encouraging plant-forward diets. But other less lofty proposals could help alleviate some of the food system’s pressing issues without a complete overhaul: a proposed ban on further food company mergers, for example, is the kind of incremental change that could get some traction outside of the farm bill’s five-year cycle, opening up more opportunities to move climate action forward when political conditions are more friendly to reform.

Top photo by Ryan Nebeker/FoodPrint.

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