A worker harvests cotton with a John Deere cotton picker on Oct. 30, 2017, near Wilson, Arkansas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Republicans who may be taking control of Congress in this week’s midterm elections have not been very specific about many policy goals — but the farm bill is an exception.
Members of the GOP in the U.S. House and Senate are sending strong signals they want to strip climate funding from the massive legislation in 2023 if they take control. That would thwart farmland conservation advocates, who had hoped to make it one of the most significant investments ever made for climate-smart practices on American farmland.
House and Senate GOP members of the agriculture panels sent letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in late October asking for justification for the administration’s recent investment in “climate-smart agriculture,” and protesting what they said was a lack of consultation with Congress.
Vilsack had announced in September $2.8 billion for research and pilot projects to support climate-friendly food production. The agency plans to announce a second group of “climate-smart commodities” projects later this year.
Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, asked Vilsack on Oct. 27 for a report on the department’s rationale for its spending.
And a group of House Republicans said Congress should have been consulted before launching the climate program “in this difficult farm economy when so many are struggling with rising input costs, drought, and an ongoing supply chain crisis.”
“We are dismayed at the lack of transparency and congressional consultation throughout the development of this process,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., wrote in an Oct. 28 letter along with eight other Republicans from the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of lawmakers that purports to be a “voice for rural America.”
Farm bill rewritten every five years by Congress
Lawmakers must rewrite the sweeping farm bill every five years to set policy and funding levels for farm, food and conservation programs. The next farm bill needs to be authorized by September 2023.
Agriculture and environmental advocacy groups have geared up for this next farm bill to potentially have a significant section for “climate-smart” farm practices, such as funding for farmers to plant trees and cover crops, use less water or leave soil un-tilled.
If so, it could be the first farm bill in more than 30 years to explicitly address climate change. The Biden administration has come out in support of such practices — notably using a general fund designated for farm support to finance new research on farmland climate mitigation.
Agriculture Committee members tout the bipartisan process they use to write the farm bill, but the question of how much focus to put on climate change is one that clearly already is dividing on party lines.
The Republican Study Committee, whose members make up 80 percent of all Republican members of Congress, proposed drastic cuts for the farm bill in the draft budget it released as a “Blueprint to Save America.” It rejects investment in a “radical climate agenda’ and outlines a plan to defund farm bill conservation programs that pay farmers to retire environmentally sensitive croplands.
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And a major dispute centers around the Inflation Reduction Act that Congress passed in August. It has a slate of programs to address climate change, including more than $20 billion for climate investments on farmland. Congress could fold that into the next farm bill for unprecedented farmland conservation spending.
The Inflation Reduction Act would provide about a 47 percent increase over previous farm bill levels, according to an analysis from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
But the top Republicans on the House and Senate Agriculture committees have said they may forego additional investment in climate provisions.
Boozman categorized the funding for agriculture climate programs as “misplaced priorities” and has said it could undermine the farm bill process.
“It unilaterally creates a multi-billion-dollar slush fund for farm bill priorities shared by the president and his allies,” Boozman said in remarks on the Senate floor in August.
“We have a storied history of working together at the Agriculture Committee … unfortunately with this decision the majority has changed that dynamic … they have undermined one of the last successful bipartisan processes remaining in the Senate,” Boozman said.
Similarly, on the House side, Pennsylvania Republican Glenn Thompson, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, said at a hearing last month that the IRA funding “endangered the bipartisan support” for the farm bill conservation title. Thompson could take over as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee if Republicans win a majority in the House.
“I will not sit idly by as we let decades of real bipartisan progress be turned on its head to satisfy people that at their core think agriculture is a blight on the landscape,” Thompson told other members of the committee. “I have been leaning into the climate discussion, but I will not have us suddenly incorporate buzzwords like regenerative agriculture into the Farm Bill or overemphasize climate.”
“I don’t feel bound by the amount of funding or the specific program allocation passed in the partisan IRA bill. I am especially worried about earmarking all the new money just for climate, rather than letting the locally led process work,” Thompson said.
‘Climate-smart’ agriculture practices gain momentum with farmers
The pushback from Republicans comes as support for “climate-smart” practices has gained unprecedented momentum in the agriculture community.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for making the next farm bill into a climate farm bill. There’s a lot of momentum,” said Anne Schechinger, Midwest director for the Environmental Working Group.
A group of over 150 progressive, agriculture and environmental groups are pushing for the next farm bill to invest in research, technical assistance and financial incentives to help farmers and ranchers reduce emissions. In a letter to President Joe Biden in September, they called on the administration to “meet the climate crisis head on” in the next farm bill.
Supporters include state farm cooperatives, community farm groups and environmental groups, including Environmental Working Group.
But it’s not only environmental groups that are pushing for new research and investment in climate-smart practices.
Major farm groups have also come out in support of investment in voluntary climate initiatives for farmers — part of a gradual shift over the years. In previous farm bill or climate debates, some farming and agribusiness groups resisted climate programs for fear it would lead to too many regulations on farmland.
But in the past two years, major farm groups formed a “food and agriculture climate alliance” to make recommendations for climate policy.
It includes the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund and trade groups representing sugar, cotton, corn and rice growers.
The National Farmers Union included climate change programs in its “days of advocacy” last year, when farmers came to Washington, D.C., to ask lawmakers for support. And the more conservative American Farm Bureau Federation has come full force behind climate-smart solutions for farmers.
Because of this momentum, some experts think the next farm bill will move toward more investment in climate programs regardless of the party with the gavel — they just might not do so as explicitly if Republicans take control.
“Who knows what phrase the farm bill might ultimately decide to use, but I think it is inevitable, regardless of who is in charge, that this farm bill will tackle climate change more directly,” said Ferd Hoefner, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on farm and food policy who has worked on nine previous farm bills.
1990 farm bill responded to climate, devastating droughts
The only farm bill to previously explicitly fund “climate change” was the 1990 farm bill, which had a “Global Climate Change” title drafted in response to the devastating 1988 droughts.
While other farm bills have not mentioned climate change, the conservation title includes billions of dollars for programs that pay farmers to rest sensitive acreage, preserve wildlife habitat or make environmental improvements to working lands.
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“We might not necessarily see the word ‘climate’ show up as much in the farm bill if Republicans do take over, but a lot of these conservation programs are really supported by both parties,” said Schechinger.
But Schechinger says USDA needs to do a better job of investing conservation money in practices that are good for the climate. Some programs, like cover crops, have a beneficial effect.
But other practices that the farm bill pays for, like lagoons for animal manure, can actually increase carbon emissions from farms. Nationwide, USDA spent $174 million on animal waste storage facilities since 2017, as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, according to EWG’s analysis of federal data.
“We are spending millions of dollars on some of these practices that are actually bad for climate change, that actually increase emissions,” said Schechinger.
The group wants the next farm bill to increase cost share and prioritization for climate-smart practices to encourage more farmers to take on practices that reduce emissions.
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