Op-ed: We Should Build Back Better to Expand Conservation Funding and Climate Resilience | Civil Eats

Op-ed: We Should Build Back Better to Expand Conservation Funding and Climate Resilience

As COP26, the U.N. Climate Conference, takes center stage in the media this week—amid news that global greenhouse gas emissions reached all-time highs last year—a growing number of eyes are fixed on the climate crisis, and what needs to be done to prevent worst case scenario warming and the devastating impacts it could bring.

Here in the U.S., those same questions are playing out in Congress, where President Biden’s Build Back Better Act—or the “infrastructure bill”—promises our best shot at addressing climate change on today’s farms.

Congressional leaders have proposed including $27 billion for climate-smart agriculture in the Act, and it’s the biggest investment in agricultural conservation programs since the Dust Bowl. This once-in-a-generation investment would lessen agriculture’s impact on the environment, while helping to finally tackle the long line of farmers who are seeking assistance (and funding) to help them farm, while prioritizing the air, water, and soil .

Why are these investments so badly needed?

Agriculture remains one of the biggest sources of water pollution, impairing drinking water for millions of Americans and contributing to toxic algae blooms and hypoxic dead zones. It is also a significant and growing source of greenhouse gas emissions that add to the climate crisis; the food system as a whole accounts for one-third of those emissions.

While overall U.S. emissions have gone down in recent years, agricultural emissions have increased by almost 12 percent since 2000. Poorly managed fertilizer and manure from livestock operations boost emissions of nitrous oxide—a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, from animals, animal waste, and rice production add to the problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has identified climate-smart farming practices that can help farmers reduce their emissions or store more carbon in the soil, including a number of organic farming practices.

Unfortunately, many farmers are rebuffed by USDA when they apply to participate in voluntary conservation programs because the agency lacks the resources to accommodate them. This year alone, more than 100,000 farmers were turned away by the USDA from its two flagship working lands conservation programs.

Rather than rewarding farmers for taking steps to address the climate crisis, historically most federal farm spending has flowed to the largest farm businesses in crop and insurance subsidies. Overall, these topped $46 billion in 2020, while farm conservation spending has leveled off in recent years to around $6–7 billion annually. And that’s why the Build Back Better Act is so historic: It would grow the current capacity of the programs dramatically and pay many more farmers to change their practices for the better.

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That precedent-setting funding is an essential down payment on the larger investment the government needs to make in climate-smart farming. A recent farmer-developed climate proposal known as RIPE100 calls for up to $40 billion in direct payments to farmers to adopt practices with multiple benefits for the climate, soil health, and water quality—as well as the health of rural communities.

Spending more is just one part of the solution. We must also spend smarter. We’ve analyzed the current conservation programs in detail and found that the USDA isn’t doing enough to ensure that participating farmers adopt the right practices in the right places.

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who crafted the Build Back Better Act understand this. That’s why funding is exclusively specified for “climate-smart” practices—a development as historic as the scale of the investment.

And changing the way we farm isn’t the only fix. We must change the way we eat.

Global protein demand is expected to double by 2050. If we meet that demand primarily with animal protein using the existing industrial practices, we jeopardize our ability to avoid the worst impacts of the climate emergency. Research shows that even if emissions from fossil fuel use were to stop immediately, emissions from the global food systems, largely as a result of how we raise animals, would preclude the world from hitting the 1.5 degree goal in the Paris Agreement and even make the 2.0 degree goal unlikely.

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To avoid a climate crisis—as well as a political one—we must ensure that climate-smart agriculture includes climate-smart food and farming.

Congress and the Biden administration have their work cut out for them if they are to curb the greatest impacts of the climate crisis. When it comes to agriculture, it’s time to stop shying away from the vital investments needed to help turn back those harms and protect future generations. Because if we don’t spend wisely now, we’ll be paying much more to stem the crises down the road.

Colin O'Neil is the legislative director for the Environmental Working Group. Read more >

Geoff Horsfield is a Government Affairs Manager for the Environmental Working Group. Read more >

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