Agriculture, Climate, and 2023 Farm Bill (A 3-Part Blog Series)

About the 3-blog series on helping American agriculture become more resilient and climate-friendly:

What we grow and consume in America has a profound impact on our lives. It is also directly influenced by federal policy, and most importantly the Farm Bill, a collection of government programs that requires renewal every five years. This sprawling legislation governs initiatives from farm subsidies to low-income nutrition support. In our first blog in this series, The Real Cost of Food, we explain the severe environmental and climate impacts of modern industrial agriculture. These harms are not widely known and yet prevent our country’s achieving our clean air and water, climate stability, and health and species protection goals.

In our second blog, Ripe for Change, we discuss the many sustainable practices that could improve our climate and environment, farmer livelihoods, and communities’ health. Thanks to the good work of many farmers and ranchers already, we know what can and should be done. Our challenge is to accelerate adoption of these practices.

In our third blog, Harvesting Climate Benefits from the 2023 Farm Bill, we dive into the Farm Bill itself. We detail four ways Congress can use the Farm Bill reauthorization to help farmers become more resilient in the face of climate change while lowering the sector’s significant environmental impact.

Article 2: Ripe for Change

Fossil-fuel and chemical-dependent industrialized agriculture systems are not necessary to provide the U.S. with abundant, affordable, nutritious food. Alternative methods including organic, regenerative, and agroecological practices are highly productive and capable of replacing the industrial-scale system American policy currently supports. While it’s true that our system generally does produce more pounds of crops (though not necessarily more nutrition) per acre than more sustainable practices, that production comes at a steep price as we wrote about in Part 1: The Real Cost of Food.

This sometimes lower crop productivity associated with more sustainable practices could likely easily be improved if more research were directed toward these practices. Despite being a good investment, agricultural research overall has declined dramatically, and research associated with sustainable climate-friendly practices gets only a tiny share of the available funding. With more study, yields and other benefits from sustainable agriculture will increase. This includes improved resilience in the face of extreme weather. These productivity and resilience advantages (as well as the savings to the crop insurance system) are rarely considered when looking just at bushels per acre.

In addition to increasing research dollars, we can also accelerate adoption of more sustainable practices through changes in federal farm policy. For more than a century, federal agricultural policy has profoundly influenced what is grown and how and where it’s cultivated. And while much of what we know about the benefits and possibilities of climate-friendly sustainable farming and ranching comes from smaller operations that have been making changes on their own, the extreme consolidation of farming practices offers the chance for larger-scale change if just a few major players take climate change and sustainability seriously. Given that only 6% of farming operations produce 90% of all of meat, dairy, and poultry, a handful of large agribusinesses can enact rapid change at landscape scale — if correctly incentivized.

Proven practices that agriculture operations can undertake include:

  • Prioritize perennial crops. Their greater root mass improves carbon storage, produces more food, and are more drought and flood resistant.
  • Diverse crop rotations. This can increase nutrient cycling and nutrient use efficiency, decrease plant diseases and insect pests, assist in managing weeds, reduce soil erosion, and increase soil health.
  • Correct use of organic (not synthetic) fertilizers. This can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
  • Precision application of nitrogen fertilizer. This limits nitrous oxide and water pollution.
  • Improved manure management. Practices such as dry handling and separation can reduce methane emissions.
  • Agroforestry practices. Incorporating trees into crop rows or pasture areas increases carbon storage, increases water and nutrient retention, reduces runoff, and provides shade.
  • Cover cropping. This adds carbon to soils, reduces fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation needs, and reduces on-farm energy use.
  • Managed grazing on ranch land. This can improve plant health, soil health, and water infiltration, and in places increase soil carbon.

Utilizing these practices can shift industrial agriculture from a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a more neutral industry. In fact, if you add all of these and other sustainable practices together, agriculture can be transformed into a net sink of carbon.

Healthy Soil & Green House Gas Reduction Practices can Make Agriculture Carbon-Neutral

Earthjustice developed this chart from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Carbon Management & Emissions Tool (COMET) Planner. The emissions are drawn from EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

However, encouraging best practices alone can only do so much to address the full impact of industrial agriculture. These efforts must be coupled with regulatory oversight of the largest industrial agricultural facilities.  Yet currently, major environmental laws largely exempt agriculture from complying with standards that other industries must meet. The Clean Air Act does not require industrial farms to report on emissions related to livestock, even though they are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Hazardous non-point source pesticide, chemical fertilizer, and manure run-off from farm fields are also exempt under the Clean Water Act.

Because America is now dominated by industrial agriculture that functions more like factories than small family farms, these exemptions do not make any sense. Expanding the scope of environmental laws to rightfully cover agriculture pollution from the largest operations (our environmental laws often impose closer oversight over large facilities and not regulating smaller ones) will help policymakers understand the true impact of agriculture and can create incentives and avenues for large industrial operators to reduce their impacts.

Just as the country cuts energy sector emissions both by cleaning production methods and reducing demand, the country can use environmental laws to address the largest sources of pollution and reduce demand for the most climate-intense foods. Indeed, we must reduce demand for high-climate-impact foods; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that “[e]ven if fossil fuel emissions were halted, current trends in the food system would prevent the achievement of [1.5 degrees of warming].”

But with the food sector, we have another important opportunity — to re-align incentives farmers and ranchers see from federal policy. The federal policy should accelerate, not impede adoption of the best agriculture practices listed above. That requires influencing the single largest investment taxpayers make in the environment — the federal farm bill — which is up for renewal this year.

[Read Article 1: The Real Cost of Food]

[Read Article 3: Harvesting Climate Benefits from the 2023 Farm Bill]

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.