Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Agriculture and the 2023 Farm Bill are opportunities for climate action

Over the weekend, I had the good fortune of attending a seminar titled “Farming For Our Future” at the Yosemite Environmental Law Conference. The panelists illustrated the ways and extent to which agriculture, forestry and food systems contribute to climate change and environmental degradation. They also explained how U.S. policy choices have led us down the path of harmful agriculture and how policy changes can make a difference.

I left the panel feeling excited and hopeful about how lawyers and policymakers can address climate change by paying more attention to rural spaces and agriculture, and so I decided to bring a brief overview of what I learned to the blog.

The Problems

Agriculture and forestry contribute about 9 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the national figure is about 11 percent. Food systems worldwide contribute to one third of global emissions.

The panelists explained that in California, these agricultural emissions are predominantly caused by manure processing and livestock enteric (aka cow burps), followed by emissions from growing and harvesting crops and fuel combustion. Livestock further contributes to climate change due to the scale of the industry’s use of rangelands, which make up 21 percent of all land in the U.S. and do not sequester carbon.

Another large source of agriculture emissions in California is rice. I’d previously known rice to be a water-intensive crop with the redeeming factor of creating good habitat for migratory birds given the widespread loss of natural wetland habitat. This weekend, however, I learned that the flooded-field method of growing rice poses an additional climate challenge: The water that sits in the field becomes anaerobic and emits substantial amounts of methane.

Sacramento Valley rice fields, which dot most roads leading in
 and out of Chico, where I grew up. Photo Credit:Laretta Johnson

Our current agricultural practices pose environmental problems beyond intensifying climate change. The panelists also talked about degradation and loss of soil caused by, among other things, lack of cover cropping and use of nonorganic fertilizer and pesticides. Fertilizer use and manure also lead to water contamination throughout the Central Valley and other areas of the state and country.

The list of environmental issues within agriculture go on, and one could easily dedicate a blog post to each one. But rather than attempt an exhaustive list of environmental challenges, I want to address both some roots of the issue and opportunities for policy change.

Roots of Environmentally Harmful Agriculture

First, it’s important to note that agriculture can be, and traditionally has been, regenerative and sustainable. Panelist Professor Lingxi Chenyang spoke about pre-contact agriculture in the Americas, which was more biodiverse and tailored to the ecosystem in which it was practiced. Examples of this are fire-managed agroforestry, three-sisters practices, and wetland-based agriculture.

As Professor Chenyang explained, when European settlers arrived and colonized the land, they began to adopt commodity farming practices focused on exports and without real conservation practices. Federal policy and westward expansion then established regional agricultural specialization, like wheat in the great plains, corn in the midwest, cattle grazing in the west, and fruits and vegetables in California. As illustrated by the Dust Bowl, intensive monoculture degrades soil health and is harmful to natural ecosystems.

Congress passed the first iteration of the Farm Bill as part of the New Deal in response to low agricultural commodity prices following World War I, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl. Its main intention was to reduce surplus and raise crop prices, and it incentivized farmers to reduce production of certain crops. The Farm Bill, which is passed every five years, continues to have a huge influence on American agriculture and primarily supports and subsidizes large-scale commodity production rather than diversified, climate-resilient agriculture. You can read more about past farm bills' effects on land stewardship here.

Policy Solutions and Potential for Change

As the saying goes, inside every problem lies an opportunity. The opportunity to address climate change via agriculture policy is now, as the 2018 Farm Bill expired last month and Congress has yet to pass the 2023 bill. The call for the farm bill to address climate isn't new (see this 2012 blog post) but I wonder if the time and current administration may lead to real climate progress this time around.

If policymakers can influence the new Farm Bill to fund and incentivize climate-friendly practices, rather than continue to subsidize corporate commodity farms, the country could make big strides toward reducing agricultural emissions. This could also lead to more resilient farming practices in preparation for the climate disasters we are already locked in to.

As the Center for American Progress notes in this article, the “must-pass” Farm Bill is a unique opportunity for the typically gridlocked Congress to pass legislation addressing climate change. The Center recommends investing in conservation easements, climate innovation research and rural capacity building, among other climate-smart practices.

Some good news is that climate-resilient and low-emission, sustainable practices do exist – and they can provide ample food. Agroecological practices suggested by panelist Peter Lehner, managing attorney for Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, include perennial crops, crop rotations, cover crops, no-till and reduced till practices, agroforestry and silvopasture, and organic fertilizer, compost and biochar practices.

However, according to Mr. Lehner, a USDA survey showed that 85% of farmers are unwilling to adopt structural conservation practices without outside funding. And from a business perspective, that makes a lot of sense.

One of my closest friends works for a resource conservation district in Virginia, where she helps administer grant money to farmers for adopting conservation practices. Farming has often been in a family for generations, and changing longstanding practices are a risk. Asking farmers to take such risks without financial and educational support is unlikely to move the country’s agriculture toward climate resilient and climate friendly practices, but the Farm Bill, as well as state policies, can be an avenue for providing funding, support and education for farmers to do so.

As Mr. Lehner pointed out during the panel, the federal government has recently invested heavily in sustainable transportation and energy. The next step can and should be sustainable agriculture.

Many thanks to the “Farming for our Future” panelists, Professor Lingxi Chenyang; Torri Estrada, Executive Director and Director of Policy at the Carbon Cycle Institute; and Peter Lehner, Managing Attorney for the Sustainable Food and Farming Program at Earthjustice. The panelists shared a lot of the knowledge, history and statistics used in this blog post.


Sophie R Radford said...

With so much negative stigma attached to current policy making surrounding climate change, it is really encouraging to hear your enthusiasm and optimism for how climate action can/will be addressed.
I thought your points about harmful agricultural practices was really industry. For my most recent post, I explored the ways in which mining practices destroy the quality of soil and prevent any future agricultural uses. I have never stopped to consider that there may actually be farming practices that are just as harmful – this was really eye opening.
On a final note – I really developed a sense of reassurance with the prospective climate action policy that was discussed. It is all too common for people to be able to identify problems and talk about how bad they are, but fail to produce any solutions. It sounds as though the seminar was a really valuable experience! Thank you so much for sharing.

Thalia Taylor said...

I also loved that panel. I think that agriculture really has to be the next frontier for climate policy. Not only is current agribusiness bad for the planet, it's bad for people. Growing up in the midwest, I was surrounded by corn farms that seemed entirely depopulated. Industrial and GMO farming pushed smaller farmers out and allowed big business to be an even larger recipient of federal funds. Something that I often think about (that they didn't talk about at the panel) is that future-proofing food supplies is going to require more genetic diversity within the crops we plant. Monsanto and other Ag companies that have patented their seeds have driven local seed banking practices out of lots of agricultural areas. Though this country produces way too much corn, I think that even encouraging variety within corn production would help farmers get out under the thumb of big ag and produce more interesting crops. I don't know enough about farming to know this, but I wonder if there wouldn't also be some benefits to the soil from planting different varieties of the same crop.