May 9, 2014
On May 6, the White House released its National Climate Assessment “Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” While this is the third such report released by the White House, it is unique in looking exclusively at the domestic impacts of climate change.
The report breaks down climate change impacts by region and sector, including agriculture, creating an extensive look at how climate change is impacting the country. The report makes it clear that agriculture has already experienced disruptions from climate change. Increasing extremes in precipitation – longer periods of drought in some regions and increased rainfall intensity in others – have degraded critical agricultural soil and water resources. According to the report, these losses will continue unless “innovative conservation methods are implemented.”
Farm Bill Conservation Programs Play an Important Role
Current federal farm policy contains several such conservation programs that support farmers in their efforts to better conserve critical soil and water resources. While the 2014 Farm Bill renewed these extremely popular and effective conservation programs, it reduced their mandatory funding by $4 billion. Furthermore, mandatory conservation program funding has been cut by nearly $3.2 billion through backdoor mechanisms known as Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) in appropriations bills since 2008. Nearly 80 percent of all CHIMPS made to farm bill programs since 2007 have targeted conservation programs and these reductions come on top of more than $2 billion in sequestration cuts.
Far removed from Congress and Washington, D.C., these cuts have real world impacts.
The Conservation Stewardship Program is the largest federal working lands conservation program by acreage, and one that is particularly oriented to building healthy soils to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Between 2008 and 2013, roughly 60 million acres of farmland were enrolled in the program, helping thousands of farmers preserve critical natural resources, such as soil and water. With the cuts to conservation in the 2014 Farm Bill, however, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) will enroll almost 3 million acres less in the program annually. This translates into 2,000 farmers and ranchers who will be turned away from the program each year.
The newly created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) could potentially offer additional assistance to farmers seeking to mitigate climate change impacts. RCPP allows farmers to sign-up for conservation technical and financial assistance through targeted regional or thematic projects that are organized by farm and conservation organizations, state agencies, conservation districts, or others with an interest in partnering with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on conservation program delivery.
On February 6, 2013, USDA released “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation.” The report found that sustainable agriculture practices and systems – such as diversifying crop rotations and minimizing off-farm flow of nutrients and pesticides, among others – are actions that may improve agriculture’s capacity to minimize the effects of climate change. The report went so far as to state “For example . . . production practices that enhance the ability of healthy soils to regulate waters resource dynamics at the farm and watershed scales will be particularly critical for the maintenance of crop and livestock productivity under conditions of variable and extreme weather events.”
Although the 2014 Farm Bill does not directly authorize NRCS to use RCPP to help producers mitigate and adapt to climate change, USDA can, and should, prioritize applications focused on providing tools and resources for producers looking to build resiliency on their farms and ranches through the adoption of farming practices and systems that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sequester carbon.
Agriculture is an economic driver and job creator; and it provides the food we give our families each day. The report makes it clear that unless steps are taken to better conserve our soil and water resources, we face increased drought, decreased yields, and food insecurity. It is our hope that in the future Congress and USDA will protect and promote the conservation programs that support farmers in conserving natural resources and mitigating climate change.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment