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Climate Action Is a Secret Winner in the 2018 Farm Bill

January 8, 2019
By
Peter Lehner Senior Strategic Advisor
Sarah Saylor Sr. Legislative Representative

The 2018 Farm Bill is surprisingly climate-conscious.

Roughly every five years, Congress revises and renews the Farm Bill to fund our nation’s food security, nutrition, and farm conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed with large bipartisan majorities in both chambers, is surprisingly climate-conscious. Its successes will serve as a foundation upon which future more aggressive climate-smart farm policy can be built.

The Farm Bill’s climate change benefits stem from a number of provisions that incentivize more climate-friendly practices. For example, the Farm Bill’s federal crop insurance program will now allow — rather than discourage — greater use of cover crops, a practice that has well-proven climate and water quality benefits. This program, which is now the primary federal subsidy to industrial farming, has often inhibited the use of climate-friendly practices such as cover crops and longer crop rotations, while at the same time encouraging planting on marginal lands, which are better suited as habitat for wildlife, buffers for streams, and carbon sinks. The 2018 law takes steps to end these perverse incentives.

The Conservation title of the bill contains a number of programs that will help curb climate change. This title continues to provide about $ 6 billion annually to the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program, all of which saw modest improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill. The changes to EQIP, which generally provides a 75 percent cost-share for installation of approved conservation measures, best illustrate how these traditional programs can pay climate and environmentaldividends, with the added twist of garnering the support of fiscal conservatives.

EQIP data from USDA indicated that only 14 percent of EQIP funding went to conservation practices identified as producing the most environmental benefits, something that concerns both those in favor of restrained federal spending and those in favor of greater gains in conservation. To turn the tide, the new law allows states to identify 10 highly effective conservation practices to be eligible for a greater financial incentive.

In addition to fighting climate change, this Farm Bill will also encourage practices that protect the drinking water of millions. Industrial-scale agriculture — the large chemical-dependent monocultures where the same crop is planted year after year and the production of grain-fed animals in enormous enclosed facilities — is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the country. This agricultural water pollution can render water unfit for further human use and impose significant drinking water treatment costs on thousands or millions of communities and homeowners. As a result of the clear and present threat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a lead negotiator of the final bill, was able to build bipartisan agreement to support practices that could reduce this pollution.

This legislation comes at a critical moment, when our country must decide whether and how to deal with the dramatic warming of the planet. Two recent climate reports confirm that we must act on climate change quickly, and that the extreme weather climate scientists have been warning us about are here and will worsen in the years ahead. Our agricultural activities such as farming, ranching, and animal raising are both contributors to and victims of the changing climate. At the same time that industrial agriculture releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases from excess fertilization, tillage, manure, and animal emissions, our farms and ranches are also particularly vulnerable to the floods, droughts, heat waves, pests, and other problems that climate change exacerbates. Those who produce our food deserve help in both slowing climate change and preparing for it.

Fortunately, sustainable farmers and ranchers around the country have repeatedly demonstrated that many farming practices can help both slow and withstand climate change. For example, practices that increase carbon stored in soil or that use natural systems to reduce chemical needs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they increase the amount of water the soil can absorb and enrich the fertility of the soil, thereby helping farmers endure worsening conditions. These same practices also reduce water pollution and save farmers money.

Given the scale and scope of the climate problem we face, more needs to be done in the next Farm Bill — indeed, much sooner — to accomplish the change needed in the agricultural sector so that it can produce sufficient nutritious food in more extreme weather without making climate change and other pollution worse. The 2018 Farm Bill, by lifting up practices known to have multiple environmental benefits, is a promising place to start.