Lawmakers Should Go Beyond Rejecting Trump Budget Cuts, Embrace Innovation in Ag

February 14, 2020

The $4.8 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2021 offered by the White House this week tracks with the spending plans President Trump has offered in each of the last three years. As in those previous three proposals, he calls for massive cuts in numerous federal agriculture, energy and environmental programs. Those proposals made no headway in Congress, and there is little expectation that this year’s version will fare any better.

The president’s plan this week ignores a bipartisan agreement reached by lawmakers last summer to spend $634.5 billion on non-defense programs in fiscal 2021. Trump’s proposal would reduce that outlay to $590 billion.

The Trump plan would drop USDA discretionary spending next year by more than 8 percent – from $23.8 billion this year to $21.8 billion in fiscal 2021.

Among specific cuts proposed in the president’s plan for next year is a 12-percent drop ($190 million) in funding for USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. This comes despite the department announcing last week a five-year research “science blueprint” that includes a major focus on agricultural adaptation to climate change.

“Reforms” in the proposal would cut $57.7 billion in mandatory spending over the next decade, including $9.1 billion from conservation-related programs. The White House budget plan would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, seen by advocates as a principal means of supporting practices that enhance resiliency to climate change, improving soil health and carbon retention by reducing the need for agricultural inputs, and improving wildlife habitat conditions.

Rejecting the Trump administration’s attack on farm bill spending should only be a beginning step for Congress. Lawmakers would do well to look beyond the farm bill and take actions that will enable those who work the land the best opportunity to remain economically viable and environmentally responsible.

That includes fully supporting research efforts directed at climate risks, adaptation innovations, the economic value and effectiveness of climate smart agriculture (CSA) production practices, and methods to set environmental goals and outcomes to meet market incentives.

The U.S. agriculture industry is already taking the lead in envisioning new policies which more fully unlock agriculture’s potential to provide solutions to current challenges. In addition to the basic step of funding and staffing existing programs, momentum is growing around the idea that Congress should provide farmers, ranchers and forestland owners with a way to assign value to the ecosystem services they offer, opening the door to programs providing direct payments or tax incentives to producers practicing outcomes-based, effective CSA management.

Another endeavor worthy of congressional support is a carbon pricing mechanism that can provide payments to farmers who use CSA practices to increase carbon retention in their soil. Lawmakers could give the USDA power to ensure a carbon credit market where farmers and private sector enterprises can buy, sell and trade according to the value of carbon sequestered and stored long-term in working landscapes.

There are also calls for lawmakers to revive USDA’s network of Climate Hubs, comprised of 10 regional collaborations linking department research and program agencies in the delivery of timely and authoritative tools and information to agricultural producers and professionals. Assistance should be provided to ensure grower implementation of climate-informed decisions.

Regardless of which ideas are adopted and how our nation chooses to meet the challenges of a changing climate over the next 10 – or 30 – years, agriculture will remain a leading industry in those efforts. The sector will influence our natural resource base, our food system, and our energy and national security. Critically, the ag sector will continue to have a major impact on the working men and women, rural communities, and producers it supports, whose voices must be the first word in the conversation about how agriculture will change in the future.

SfL urges Congress to honor U.S. agriculture for the important role in American history the sector has played through its massive growth in production and the many contributions it has and will make in resolving food system, energy, environmental and climate challenges. By providing visionary enabling policies, regulatory stability and funding certainty, Congress can help U.S. producers set an example of the progress that can be made towards meeting climate challenges and addressing sustainable development goals on a global scale.

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