In the midst of the Civil War and at a time when nearly half of Americans lived on farms and agriculture was a centerpiece of the American way, Abraham Lincoln had the foresight to sign a bill creating the US Department of Agriculture. President Lincoln said, “The Agricultural Department… is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is peculiarly the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.”
Across the globe, agricultural systems account for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that in 2016, agricultural emissions accounted for nine percent of the total GHG emissions in the United States. In Congress, lawmakers have the opportunity to implement policy with the goal of reducing agricultural GHG emissions and assisting farmers and ranchers who are faced with the devastating impacts of a changing climate resulting in extreme drought, wildfires, and shorter growing seasons.
According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a report released in November by 13 federal agencies and the White House, the effects of climate change on American farms and ranches will continue to present major challenges that are likely to outpace technological solutions, making the advancement of agricultural innovation even more critical. The report points out that even though agriculture is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, there is tremendous opportunity to control emissions and change course.
One of the mechanisms available to the United States federal government to address the changing climate – especially as it relates to agriculture – is through the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a comprehensive omnibus bill that is renewed every five years by Congress to set national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy.
Certain provisions that have been included in the 2018 Farm Bill lay out concrete steps to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to the already-changing climate. Included in the bill is a new pilot program within the existing Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that incentivizes farmers to build soil health and measure the gains in soil carbon. The bill also classifies conservation practices as good farming practice which will grant farmers additional freedom to plant cover crops. Cover crops– traditionally planted in the winter – can trap carbon in the soil helping to reduce GHG emissions.
Unfortunately, funding in the farm bill is zero sum and decisions around which programs get what dollars comes at a cost to others. For example, in the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress established the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and reauthorized the Initiative in the 2014 Farm Bill. The program was authorized to be funded at $700 million a year, but in 2018 AFRI was only funded at $400 million. Additionally, grants available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, which support farming practices that can withstand extreme weather and reduce emissions, can only fund around half of the participants that try to access them because of cuts in funding. It is critical that funds are appropriated in full to designated programs. Traditional farming practices are still important, but an openness and commitment to more sustainable and transformative practices that reflect the present reality faced by farmers and ranchers is necessary.
Many farming communities across the United States are eager to act and change their practices but many of them currently lack the resources and support needed to do so. While the 2018 Farm Bill demonstrates some attempts at advancing sustainable agricultural practices, it largely misses the mark. In the quickly changing agricultural landscape that is suffering from drought and forest fire, pests and disease, it is no longer enough to simply consider sustainable practices. By cutting funding or merely maintaining funding for research and programs that are used to improve rural economies, mitigate impacts of climate variability, address water availability issues, and train the next generation of agricultural workers, the burden falls hardest on the farmers and ranchers who are faced directly with these impacts. As President Lincoln has been credited with saying, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,” and neither should Congress as they put the 2018 Farm Bill policies into practice.