USDA Conservation Programs Critical to Helping Producers Address Climate Challenges

March 17, 2022

The House Agriculture Committee this week launched its first significant effort to shape climate policy as part of a new farm bill next year, examining the role of the USDA in addressing climate change. Chairman David Scott (D-GA) has called climate change agriculture’s “greatest challenge” – and the pressure it places on our nation’s food production capability will only intensify when the ramifications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on global food supplies come to bear.

Drawing witnesses representing commodity groups, academia, policy advocacy organizations and working farm operations, the hearing this week sets the stage for the development and improvement of programs to be authorized in legislation that will set farm policy through 2028.

Scott held a hearing early last year to discuss the role that farmers, ranchers, and foresters have in addressing climate change, as well as the impacts climate change is having on them and their local communities. With an eye to the next farm bill, the hearing this week focused on how the 2018 Farm Bill supports voluntary USDA programs help improve the profitability of agriculture operations and mitigate climate change at the same time.

The chairman said boosting agriculture’s role in taking on climate change will be a priority in the farm bill debate ahead and emphasized that farmers, ranchers and forestland owners will have an active role in developing the climate change programs that impact their operations.

This week’s hearing reinforced the position long held by SfL. Agriculture is on the front line in experiencing the impacts of climate change with warmer temperatures, increasing intense precipitation events, the emergence of new pests and invasive species disrupting productivity across the globe. But so too is agriculture’s unique role in stemming climate change, given the innovation the sector brings in both reducing emissions and sequestering greenhouse gases – from low-carbon renewable energy and biofuels to cover crops that help retain climate-changing carbon in the soil.

The risk posed by carbon emissions to our agriculture sector, which is among the most productive in the world, is not lost on most who provide our food, feed and fiber. And as this week’s hearing would indicate, policy makers also are well aware of the threat climate change poses to a sector that contributed more than $136 billion to the U.S. economy and directly supported 2.6 million jobs in 2020.

The long-term changes in weather patterns that threaten the abundance offered by the landscapes that support our U.S. farming and forestry sectors go back to the late 1800s. Over that period, the average global temperature has increased about 2 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing with that hike changes in rainfall patterns and more frequent climatic extremes. Cited by experts as an example of growing extremes is finding that in 2021, 61 percent of the landmass of the contiguous 48 states experienced moderate or worse drought.

On the global stage, a recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report offered a bleak outlook, asserting the inescapable and devastating impact of climate change. However, the report also cited “food systems” as being critical to the global population’s collective survival and makes some 240 mentions of the need for transformation of global food systems to meet the challenge of climate change.

As the result of commitments made last year at a UN Food Systems Summit, more than 110 nations are pursuing new routes that transform the way they produce, process and consume food to slow down climate change.

Conservation-related farm bill programs promoted by SfL– the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), among dozens more ‑ were generally praised by those testifying this week. Several witnesses said the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service would benefit by a funding increase – one witness said 10-20 percent – dedicated for new and existing greenhouse-gas-reduction, adaption and soil-health efforts.

It should be noted that SfL’s advocacy of conservation measures goes beyond the domestic area. The SfL-sponsored North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA) plays a strong role in global climate talks advocating science-driven solutions to the sector’s climate issues. That experience reinforced a wide range of NACSAA recommendations to special committees on the climate crisis established in the House and Senate in 2020. They call attention to the profound and critical role agriculture plays in bridging gaps in policy arenas – from food security and nutrition, to energy and national security, to rural development and job creation, to environmental protection and climate mitigation. SfL calls on stakeholders to maintain their appeal to lawmakers to boost USDA funding that could incentivize farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to utilize their unique skills and expand their conservation, forestry and renewable energy efforts that can help address or mitigate the effects of climate change.

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