The Field Report: What the Historic Climate Bill Means for Farmers and the Food System | Civil Eats

The Field Report: What the Historic Climate Bill Means for Farmers and the Food System

The Inflation Reduction Act includes billions for sustainable agriculture and a last-minute provision to provide debt relief to farmers.

Flooded fields in winter

August 10, 2022 update: While some advocates see the IRA’s provisions as the best solution to compensate Black farmers, others disagree with the bill’s approach. National Black Farmers Association president John Boyd condemned the fact that the IRA eliminates the previous debt relief program, which has been tied up in court.

On Sunday, after a marathon session that spanned the weekend, Democrats in the U.S. Senate passed the country’s most significant climate bill to date. While lawmakers made controversial concessions that will expand oil and gas drilling to secure the support of Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will incentivize unprecedented shifts toward renewable energy, electric vehicles, and curbing methane emissions from fossil fuel production.

For farmers and the broader food system, experts say the climate bill does not go nearly as far but will still have far-reaching implications. Action to curb emissions from any sector will benefit farmers struggling to grow food as weather extremes and disasters increase, and the legislation directly earmarks about $40 billion for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs—many of which incentivize climate-friendly practices such as reducing tillage and the planting of cover crops—renewable energy infrastructure on farms and in rural communities, and climate-smart forestry.

“There are some big gaps in what it does, and some tradeoffs that I’m not thrilled about. But, overall, it does make major investments in a lot of places we need, and it will—overall—contribute to a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S.”

“The influx of money is unquestionably a big deal for sustainable agriculture and climate resilience,” said Michael Lavender, interim policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which hosted a “Farmer Climate Story Week” at the end of July to highlight climate action on farms.

At the same time, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and allies succeeded in leading a last-minute push to include $2.2 billion in funding to compensate farmers who have been subject to discrimination within USDA programs and $3.1 billion in loan help for farmers in serious financial distress. The provisions were added on Friday, just before the bill went to the Senate floor and are meant to stand in for earlier efforts to compensate Black farmers who faced USDA discrimination that have been stymied by lawsuits.

In addition to NSAC, farm groups including the National Farmers Union, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and food advocacy organizations including the Union of Concern Scientists (UCS) mobilized their members to push for the bill’s passage. The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), which represents the agricultural industry and has historically fought against climate policy, largely stayed quiet on the bill. In a statement from AFBF President Zippy Duvall told Civil Eats the organization supports “voluntary, market-driven programs that help the environment” but had “serious concerns” about tax increases in the bill. The IRA includes a 15 percent minimum tax rate that will apply to the 200 largest corporations in the country, which often exploit loopholes to pay a lower tax rate than working families.

The historic investment in climate action comes on the heels of the latest reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which declared a “code red for humanity,” and emphasized that countries around the world were not moving fast enough to address the problem. Experts estimate the IRA could cut emissions about 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which still falls short of the administration’s 50 percent goal but puts it within reach if other measures are taken.

“There are some big gaps in what it does, and some tradeoffs that I’m not thrilled about. But, overall, it does make major investments in a lot of places we need, and it will—overall—contribute to a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S,” said Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown.

In Foley’s mind, the gaps on food and agriculture policy were bigger than those on the energy and transportation side. For one, the bill includes $500 million for increased biofuel infrastructure and market expansion, despite the fact that many climate experts see ethanol as a false climate solution that comes with other environmental consequences. And the penalties it imposes on the oil and gas industry on methane emissions don’t apply to large animal farms, which produce just as much of the powerful planet-warming gas.

“It fails to focus on the primary levers that could truly affect emissions from agriculture and the food system—like reducing food waste, helping to shift diets, and preventing big agricultural emissions in the first place, especially methane from cattle and nitrous oxide from fertilizers and manure,” Foley said. In the latest IPCC report, climate experts concluded that food systems solutions like those will be critical to meeting global targets.

But groups like NSAC and UCS are optimistic about the $20 billion boost to conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), since the USDA hasn’t had anywhere near the funds to accept all the farmers that apply. NSAC’s Lavender said the real impacts will depend on how USDA interprets language in the bill that directs the extra funding to projects “directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.”

That’s because some of the big criticisms of the programs in the past have been that the bulk of funding does not actually incentivize the most climate-smart practices and that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) get lots of money to reduce emissions from inherently emissions-intensive practices while causing other environmental harms. “The devil’s in the details, and some of those details haven’t been fully defined,” he said. (And who the Secretary of Agriculture is in the future will undoubtedly be important; Under Vilsack’s predecessor Sonny Perdue, the term “climate change” was scrubbed from the agency’s vocabulary.)

But Lavender is also excited by the prospect of the IRA setting the tone for the negotiations around the $1 trillion farm bill, which are just starting to heat up. “It opens the doors to really make it a climate-resilience focused farm bill,” he said.

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At the same time, the bill marks a major turning point in the long struggle to provide Black farmers with compensation to make up for nearly two centuries of USDA discrimination.

“By giving USDA the authority to modify debt for distressed borrowers, we will keep family farmers around the country on their farms. For those farmers, particularly Black farmers, who have suffered discrimination, this legislation sets in motion a process to right those wrongs,” Senator Booker told Civil Eats. “This was a team effort with Senator Warnock, Senator Stabenow, Secretary Vilsack, and Leader Schumer.”

In March 2021, lawmakers authorized $4 billion for direct debt relief payments in the American Rescue Plan. But that money was quickly tied up in lawsuits brought by white farmers and conservative operatives, who claimed the government could not restrict funding based on race.

“The department had not been making loans to Blacks. That in itself is biased and discriminatory, and that’s why we didn’t have loans to forgive.”

Advocacy groups have been investing significant time and energy into fighting those lawsuits, but the IRA changes the entire landscape in one fell swoop. It eliminates the contested provision from the American Rescue Plan entirely, which will put an end to the lawsuits, and replaces it with new programs. One is a $3.1 billion fund for loan relief and restructuring for farmers in financial distress and another is $2.2 billion for farmers who can prove they were subject to USDA discrimination.

“This is better than any of the other versions,” said Lloyd Wright, a retired farmer and USDA official who has been fighting for justice for Black farmers for decades. “They’re going to have to do some paperwork to document the discrimination that occurred, but we can work through that. I think it’s really going to help the Black community.”

Wright said while it won’t nearly make up for 400 years of oppression from slavery and Jim Crow laws nor the resources denied Black farmers he personally witnessed staring in 1961, he thinks it’s the best approach to righting some of the wrongs to-date. Past programs were vulnerable to legal challenges, as quickly became evident, and because they were focused exclusively on relieving debt, they did not include help for farmers who didn’t have current USDA loans.

“The department had not been making loans to Blacks. That in itself is biased and discriminatory, and that’s why we didn’t have loans to forgive,” said Wright.

He is also glad to see a provision written into the law that will require the USDA to bring in third party organizations to help with the implementation of the program. But, like the sustainable agriculture funding, the real outcome will still ultimately depend on the agency.

“The extent to which this gets implemented,” he said, “will depend on one person and one person alone, and that’s the Secretary.”  Booker, for one, said he’ll be pushing on that front. “I now plan to work closely with USDA to ensure farmers quickly get the support they have been waiting on and desperately need,” he said.

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Read More:
New UN Climate Report Urges Food Systems Solutions—Before It’s Too Late
Why Aren’t USDA Conservation Programs Paying Farmers More to Improve Their Soil?
Black Farmers in Arkansas Still Seek Justice a Century After the Elaine Massacre

Happier Chickens. While the Senate was busy with the IRA last week, USDA announced a long-awaited draft of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule, an update to the organic standard that would codify animal welfare protections. The rule has been in the works for nearly two decades and after it was finally published in 2017, it was withdrawn by the USDA when President Trump took office. Organic advocacy groups almost universally support implementing the rule and led by the Organic Trade Association have sued to get it reinstated. Pushback against it has come almost entirely from large organic egg companies that oppose provisions that will require more significant outdoor access for chickens. USDA will offer a 60-day comment period and a virtual listening session on August 19 before finalizing the rule. “This is a resounding victory for organic animals, farmers, and eaters,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with Center for Food Safety, in a press release. “USDA has again confirmed our stance that organic does mean consistently protecting animal welfare.”

Read More:
Why the Organic Industry Is Suing the USDA Over Animal Welfare
Ground-Breaking Animal Welfare Rules Moving Forward

Unhappy Chicken Company Executives? The Biden administration has made consolidation in meatpacking a key issue in its agriculture policy over the past year. Now, a Justice Department consent decree against Sanderson Farms, Wayne Farms, and Cargill will effectively end those companies’ use of a controversial poultry payment system that pits growers against each other and has long been a target of advocates working on fairness for farmers.  “Today’s settlement between the DOJ and Cargill begins to improve the wellbeing of chicken growers and packing house workers in a number of important ways. This includes taking key steps to dismantle the exploitative tournament system for payment of farmers, requiring the corporations to provide nearly $85 million to support workers, and establishing a monitor to oversee this business and to push for reforms,” Open Markets Institute’s Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a statement. The move did not go so far as to curb further consolidation: Days earlier, a joint venture of Cargill and Continental Grain—which already owns Wayne Farms, acquired Sanderson Farms. And not everyone is happy about changing rules for poultry wages. The chicken company Mountaire is pressuring its contract farmers to comment in opposition to a USDA rule meant to improve contract transparency for farmers.

Read More:
Op-Ed: Monopolies Are Giving Chicken Farmers a Raw Deal
The Continuing Woes of Contract Chicken Farmers

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. 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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