The Field Report: Will the Next Farm Bill Move the Needle on Climate Action? | Civil Eats

The Field Report: Will the Next Farm Bill Move the Needle on Climate Action?

Plus, fire risk at fertilizer plants, a tool to report competitive practices in ag, and Vegan Fridays for school lunches.

USDA employees plant Cereal Rye as a cover crop in the garden beds of the urban farm outside of the Department of Agriculture Whitten Building in Washington, D.C., December 15, 2021. (USDA photo by Preston Keres)

Welcome to The Field Report, our weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll provide you with the perspective, analysis, and context you need to make sense of the most important food system news coming out of Washington, D.C. and around the country. Email lisa@civileats.com with tips.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s announcement of a $1 billion investment in the development of “climate-support commodities” was big news this week. But it didn’t take place in a vacuum.

The farm bill—the hulking, nearly trillion-dollar piece of legislation that Congress passes every 5 years—is also once again on the horizon. And this time, legislators are promising to use federal spending on agriculture to steer farms away from the quickly intensifying climate crises.

Last week, farmers, ranchers, and federal agency officials offered up their advice on how to do that to Congressmembers in two separate hearings. The first hearing was dedicated to the conservation programs through which the USDA pays farmers to adopt sustainable practices and take land out of production.

These programs—especially the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)—are uniquely popular among farmers and most farm and environmental advocacy groups. But the programs don’t always deliver on their promises around improving soil health or maximizing carbon sequestration.

In testimony, Terry Cosby, head of the agency division that runs the programs, said that his team had already moved some EQIP dollars toward climate-friendly practices while “looking at how efficient and effective [EQIP] is “related to climate and overlapping equity concerns. Cosby also said the USDA has identified 81 “enhancements” to the CSP program that “have the best chance to help us with the climate crisis.” Cosby noted that there are more interested farms than there are available funds and encouraged lawmakers to increase funding; the stalled Build Back Better Act includes additional funding.

Several lawmakers mentioned increasing support for manure digesters on livestock operations, including Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), who is co-sponsoring a bill to expand funding for on-farm renewable energy projects. Digesters, which convert gases from waste into energy, are controversial due to the fact that they primarily work for agricultural producers keeping large numbers of animals in concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Many advocates see government support for digesters as stacking the system against farmers using more inherently climate-friendly systems, like regeneratively grazed dairies or pastured pork farms. (One study published last week found that on California dairy farms with digesters, each cow can generate more than $2,800 per year in environmental credits.)

Similar criticisms have been lobbed at carbon markets, another popular Beltway ag–climate solution. Rep. Spanberger also lobbied for passage of her Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would support the development of those markets.

The second hearing, the following day, was focused on “Sustainability in Livestock.” There, farmer witnesses and lawmakers discussed feed changes and additives that have the potential to reduce methane in cattle burps and gene-edited traits that could improve cattle’s heat tolerance. Representatives asked the most questions of Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who called repeatedly for more research funding to study livestock’s climate impacts. Stackhouse-Lawson, who previously worked for JBS, the world’s largest meat company, talked about what she sees as a gap in data: the fact that most currently available greenhouse gas emissions estimates are based on models that measure cattle burps in respiration chambers and not on measurements that capture their impacts in their natural environments. “I’m worried we’re not getting accurate emissions data,” she said.

While three other witnesses represented the country’s biggest meat and dairy companies and producers, Rosie Burroughs added one voice from outside the traditional Beltway ag paradigm. Burroughs operates a diversified organic, regenerative farm in California with her family, and she made the case that the government should invest in regenerative grazing systems in which cattle are entirely grass-fed. She pointed to the fact that the approach has successfully helped farmers in her region follow her lead and increase yields and resilience in part by eliminating chemical pesticides. Burroughs also asked lawmakers to push the USDA’s National Organic Program to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule and enforce pasture requirements, two changes that are important to the organic farming community.

Of course, while real climate–ag issues were raised in both hearings, and legislators on both sides of the aisle mainly steered away from outright climate denial—something that wouldn’t have been a given just a few years ago—there was no shortage of political posturing. So many representatives repeated the phrase, “Farmers are the original conservationists,” it started to sound like a mantra. And just like at Big Ag’s sustainability summit last year, the prevailing sentiment was that the American agriculture system has already made strides on efficiency that serve climate goals and all that’s needed now is small tweaks and a shift in the narrative.

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But the level of devastation farmers and farmworkers are already facing from wildfires, drought, and other extreme weather events suggests a very different level of alarm is warranted.

Read More:
Why Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
Methane from Agriculture Is a Big Problem. Here’s Why.
Op-Ed: The Flood of Climate Disasters Has the Food System Reeling. It’s Time to Act

Inflammatory Inputs. A massive fire erupted at a fertilizer plant in North Carolina, prompting the evacuation of more than 6,000 residents in the surrounding area. The plant didn’t have sprinklers or an alarm and contained hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, which is used to make both fertilizers and explosives. Fire officials feared the fire would cause a more dangerous explosion, but the fire was brought under control and residents began to return home this week. It’s not the first time this risk has surfaced: In 2013, an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant killed 15 people and injured hundreds. Over the last few months, fertilizer has been in the news because prices to farmers have skyrocketed and new research is emerging on how its use contributes to climate change. Meanwhile, Yale Environment360 reported on researchers who are working on a new, energy-efficient process to produce ammonia that could be used as a clean source of power in combustion engines and to store wind and solar energy.

Read More:
Are Fertilizer Explosions Just Another Cost of Doing Business for Big Ag?
Nitrous Oxide on Farms, Explained

Pushing Back on Packer Power. One month after the Biden administration announced a plan to tackle consolidation in the meatpacking industry, the USDA launched an online tool that will allow farmers and ranchers to “anonymously report potentially unfair and anticompetitive practices in the livestock and poultry sectors.” But poultry producers aren’t the only victims of these practices; consumers also appear to be getting a raw deal. The same week, JBS agreed to pay $52.5 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the biggest meatpackers of conspiring to inflate prices to increase their profits. And Forbes reported that Tyson, which is named in the same lawsuit, significantly increased its operating margins at the end of 2021 while farmers were paid less and consumers paid more at supermarkets; A surge in the stock price lifted chairman John Tyson’s net worth to $3.3 billion, In December, a criminal price fixing case brought against executives at the country’s biggest poultry companies—including Pilgrim’s Pride (owned by JBS), Tyson, and Perdue Farms—ended in a mistrial after jurors failed to reach a verdict.

Read More:
Can a New Approach to Monopolies in Meat Level the Playing Field?
Betting Hundreds of Millions of Dollars on the Cattle Market and Losing

Take That, Meatless Monday. As a passionate advocate for healthy eating, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has made it no secret that he has big plans for the city’s food system, including the massive meal programs in public schools. But less than a month into his tenure, the quick rollout of “Vegan Fridays” in city schools proved to be rocky. Individuals shared their confusion about the fact that the meals still came with cow’s milk (which is required by law) and that some contained cheese, dairy farmers vented their anger on Twitter that vegan eating was being promoted at all, and beef industry advocates penned indignant op-eds. Meanwhile, New Yorkers posted photos on Twitter to show how the meals had missed the mark on both nutrition and, especially, desirability. To top it off, the mayor was confronted with evidence that despite his repeated claims of veganism, there are multiple accounts of him eating fish in public. In the past, the city has taken slower steps to change the meals by hosting Meatless Mondays and implementing provisions of the Good Food Purchasing Program. It’s an approach many big cities have taken, including Los Angeles and Chicago, where, last week, the mayor also signed an executive order to formalize a city Food Equity Council.

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Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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