Environmental Protection

As the largest investment in working lands, the pending Farm Bill may be our best bet to address agriculture’s contribution to climate change.

Growing Climate Change: The Farm Bill as Comprehensive Climate Change Policy

Will the new Farm Bill’s policies cause agriculture to contribute to or mitigate against climate change? As the largest investment in working lands, the pending Farm Bill may be our best bet to address agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Proposed changes would ironically reduce conservation programs, which mitigate climate change, and provide more insurance for farmers affected by climate change events, shoring up profits for commodity producers.

The Farm Bill is the United States’ primary food and agriculture legislation. The breadth of its policies make the Farm Bill the primary vehicle influencing whether agricultural lands will mitigate against or contribute to climate change.

Will the Farm Bill, already a year past its scheduled renewal, finally pass? If it does pass, will Congress protect critical conservation programs that both reduce contributions to climate change and protect American farmlands from future climate impacts? As it stands, the current Farm Bill proposals reduce mandatory funding for conservation programs by billions of dollars, while also providing increased resources for crop insurance. As a policy signal, one might think the U.S. government has turned a blind eye to agriculture’s role in climate change mitigation, and has shifted its resources toward protecting the profit margins of commodity producers in the face of extreme weather.

Agriculture and climate change are inexorably linked. Agriculture is a primary source of methane and nitrous oxide emissions, two prominent greenhouse gasses. Changes in climate will affect crop and livestock yields, resulting in increased costs for agricultural commodities and decreased farm incomes, influencing where and how we produce food. At the same time, agriculture can also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by storing carbon in soil and vegetation.

The conservation title of the Farm Bill is the largest source of federal investment in private working lands conservation and is the primary method of addressing environmental harms on farms and ranches. In addition to promoting land conservation, programs under the title encourage farmers to implement conservation practices and set aside fragile lands, which can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

However, as Congress tries again to agree on a Farm Bill, conservation funding is being cut and the 1985 Farm Bill requirement that links reducing soil erosion and wetlands protection to the ability to receive Farm Bill benefits is at risk. The Farm Bill is up for renewal every five years and was due for reauthorization in 2012. Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill, and as a stopgap, extended some provisions of the 2008 law. As a result, many conservation programs had reduced funding or were unfunded this past year. Both the House and the Senate have passed new versions of the Farm Bill, with key differences in the amount of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) and conservation programs.

Even if Congress is able to agree on the bill’s terms, conservation programs will face reductions in funding. Both the House and Senate version decrease the number of conservation programs and reduce mandatory funding over the ten-year baseline. The Senate version would decrease funding by $3.5 billion while the house bill reduces the funding by $4.8 billion.

At the same time, crop insurance funding has been increased in both versions of the bill, reflecting a tremendous growth in demand. The increased demand for this management tool is due in part to the upsurge in extreme weather events, a byproduct of climate change. About 80% of farmers now avail themselves of the federal crop insurance program, which is significantly underwritten by our tax dollars. These subsidies cost taxpayers $7.4 billion dollars in 2011. With this much funding, taxpayers should be able to see some return on their investment. The Senate version of the Farm Bill ties conservation compliance to farmer eligibility for receiving crop insurance. While conservation compliance falls short of safeguarding our fragile natural resources, without linking insurance to conservation compliance, we will have bought ourselves an environmental calamity.

The Farm Bill represents a rare opportunity to provide critical funding to reduce harmful environmental impacts of agriculture, build resiliency in our food systems, and militate against climate change through improvements in conservation practices. Our failure to pass and strengthen the Farm Bill’s environmental provisions is a lost opportunity we can ill afford.

About the Authors

Professor Ristino is director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) and an associate professor of law. As director, she is responsible for CAFS vision and direction, including curriculum development, teaching, outreach, and advocacy. Professor Ristino is also the faculty advisor to VLS's Food and Agriculture Law Society.

Allison Gabala is a staff editor at VJEL. She graduated magna cum laude from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and plans to focus her legal practice on hazardous waste and the redevelopment of contaminated land.

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