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.”
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.