Much of the national conversation about climate change has ignored the role of agriculture or singled out farmers as part of the problem without also recognizing them as an essential part of the solution. On Wednesday, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), comprehensive legislation that sets a bold vision of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in U.S. agriculture by 2040.
At the outset of the 116th Congress, House leadership established the nation’s first-ever Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to prioritize the greatest challenge facing the health, environment, economy and future of the planet. The committee was authorized by House Resolution 6 to publish a set of public recommendations by March 31, 2020. The Select Committee’s recommendations are expected to set broad climate goals and Pingree’s ARA could serve as the committee’s model for recognizing agriculture as a key part of the climate solution.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its “Agriculture Innovation Agenda,” which aims to cut American agricultural emissions in half by 2050. Pingree’s bill would help USDA reach this goal more expeditiously by expanding the agency’s authority and increasing funding for key USDA programs, she said.
“Farming has always been a risky business, but unpredictable, extreme weather patterns are creating immense challenges that threaten our nation’s food production and jeopardize the livelihood of American farmers,” said Pingree, an organic farmer for more than 40 years. “Last year, farmers were unable to plant 19.6 million acres of crops due to record-breaking rainfall. We must be proactive to keep farmers on the land and in business.”
Pingree recognizes that farmers need to be empowered with the best available science and provide a range of conservation tools, because what works for one farmer in Maine may not work for another in Iowa or Georgia. “The Agriculture Resilience Act is designed as a roadmap to sequester more carbon in the soil and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by supporting farmers where they are,” she said.
The bill looks to reform animal agriculture through its goals of supporting advanced grazing management, increasing crop/livestock integration and shifting manure management practices to “less climate-damaging methods.”
Currently, agricultural activities contribute 8.4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. To reach net-zero agricultural emissions within the next 20 years, ARA focuses on six concrete policy areas and offers solutions rooted in science that are farmer driven.
Increasing research: ARA would ensure that existing agricultural research programs prioritize climate change research, increase funding for USDA’s Regional Climate Hubs, support public breed and cultivar research and create a new SARE Agricultural & Food System Resilience Initiative for farmer and rancher research and demonstration grants.
Improving soil health: The bill would create a new soil health grant program for state and tribal governments, authorize USDA to offer performance-based crop insurance discounts for practices that reduce risk, expand the National Agroforestry Center by authorizing three additional regional centers and explore new ways to reward farmers, such as future carbon markets or tax incentives for soil carbon sequestration.
Protecting existing farmland: ARA would increase funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program, which Pingree championed in the 2018 farm bill, and create a new sub-program for farm viability and local climate resilience centers to help farmers reach new markets. The bill would also increase funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program and amend the tax code to exclude from gross income the gain from the sale of: (1) permanent conservation easements and (2) farm property to beginning, socially disadvantaged, veteran and young farmers.
Supporting pasture-based livestock systems: The legislation would create a new alternative manure management program to support an array of livestock methane management strategies, a new grant program to help very small meat processors cover the costs associated with meeting federal inspection guidelines and a Grasslands 30 pilot program within the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to enroll grassland that is exiting CRP or at risk of conversion.
Boosting investments in on-farm energy initiatives: ARA would increase funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, direct USDA to study dual-use renewable energy and cropping or livestock systems and move the AgSTAR program to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide technical assistance to farmers interested in reducing methane emissions through anaerobic digestion.
Reducing food waste: ARA would standardize food date labels to reduce consumer confusion, create a new USDA program to reduce food waste in schools and increase federal support for composting and anaerobic digestion food waste-to-energy projects.
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) policy director Eric Deeble said the marker bill represents the nation’s first piece of comprehensive legislation on climate and agriculture. The tenants of this bill are fully in line with the recommendations of NSAC’s recent climate report, "Agriculture & Climate Change: Policy Imperatives & Opportunities to Help Producers Meet the Challenge," Deeble said.
“The legislation rightfully takes an all-hands-on-deck approach, bringing to bear many facets of agriculture in combatting climate change, including expanding farmland protection, USDA climate research, conservation programming and food waste efforts," added Tim Fink, policy director at American Farmland Trust.
Former Vice President Al Gore offered his support for Pingree’s bill, saying it “rightly puts farmers at the center of a comprehensive plan to achieve net-zero emissions from the U.S. agricultural system by 2040. This act harnesses science and resources to advance regenerative farming practices in order to protect and enhance soil health while removing carbon from the atmosphere. By realizing the vision set forth in this bill, American farmers can continue to provide healthy food sustainably while playing a leading role in solving the climate crisis.”