April 21, 2017
Throughout this week hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. will be leading projects, demonstrations, and activities in celebration of Earth Day (April 22). Whether you’re a farmer who’s proud of the advanced conservation activities on your farm, a gardener doing your part to add greenery to your neighborhood, or a consumer who loves eating fresh at your local farmers’ market, Earth Day gives everyone a great reason to kick their environmental awareness into high gear.
At the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), advancing food systems and practices that benefit both farmers and the environment are a driving force behind much of our work. In recent years, as extreme weather patterns have caused significant environmental damage and resulting in millions in lost farm income, it has become more important than ever to think seriously about climate change agricultural adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Agriculture: “Rooted” in Environmental Stewardship
Working agricultural land occupies 40 percent (over 900 million acres) of land in the U.S. as of 2012, meaning that agriculture and environmental stewardship must go hand in hand if we plan to have a robust food system and fertile soil and clean air and water for the next generations. Farmers have a major stake in reducing pollution and mitigating the effects of climate change because they know their livelihoods depend on it. Extreme weather patterns and previously unseen levels and types of pest and disease outbreaks have increasingly resulted in crop losses and reduced incomes for farmers across the country.
Recognizing farmers’ role as stewards of the land, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers several programs to help farmers implement advanced conservation techniques and build long-term sustainability into their business plan. Over our 30-year history, NSAC has been at the forefront of developing and advancing programs that help farmers farm in a sustainable manner and adapt to and mitigate climate-induced challenges.
Working Lands Conservation Programs
The two USDA programs at the heart of the agency’s efforts to support conservation on working lands are the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Through CSP and EQIP, farmers can receive financial cost-share and technical assistance in exchange for implementing conservation practices like rotational grazing and cropping systems, buffer strips, integrated pest management, pollinator habitat, or planting cover crops. By improving water, soil, and air quality, and reintroducing key wildlife habitat, farmers are also increasing their farm’s productivity, adaptability, and ability to sequester carbon.
Unfortunately, mandatory program funding for farm bill conservation programs like CSP and EQIP is currently under threat through an appropriations process called Cuts to Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS). This issue will be front and center next week as Congress deals with the annual government spending bill for 2017. It is NSAC and our allies’ strong belief that the farm bill’s funding process, painstakingly undertaken by Congress every five years, should not be upended through backdoor annual appropriations maneuvers.
While working lands conservation programs help to increase stewardship through the introduction or enhancement of existing conservation practices, research programs help farmers to be more sustainable in the future by developing locally/regionally adapted seed stocks, identifying ways to increase soil health, and sharing new tools and knowledge with farmers across the country.
Of USDA’s agricultural research programs, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is the only one to exclusively fund sustainable agriculture-focused research and education projects. This competitive research grant is especially unique for its emphasis on farmer-driven projects. In 2016, for example, SARE funded projects that helped farmers and researchers to:
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) is another example of an important research program that seeks to address agriculture’s biggest challenges. AFRI grants are framed around overarching themes, two of which are directly related to climate resilience and environmental protection: the Resilient Agroecosystems in a Changing Climate challenge area and Water for Food Production Systems challenge area. These challenge areas gather project proposals from across the country that seek to find ways to uniquely address both a pressing natural resource concern (ex., water quality) as well as adaptability in the face of climate change.
Reinvesting in Seed Development
Despite the progress made by research programs like SARE and AFRI, there are still key areas of research where we have failed to adequately invest public dollars. Perhaps the starkest area of disinvestment has been in public seed breeding and research programs. Farmers and scientists alike know that diversity and resilience are critical to the long-term health of their operations, but we have for years been losing our public seed breeders and institutions due in significant part to a severe decline in federal investment. Public breeding programs, housed within our nation’s Land Grant Institutions, have historically been the source for locally and regionally adapted seed varietals that meet farmers’ specific needs – including being developed to thrive on diversified, sustainable, and organic operations. Research from these institutions have led to the development of more climate-change resilient cover crops, specialty crops (i.e., fruits and vegetables), open-pollinated breeds, organic seeds, and high nutritional value seeds. Sadly, over the last twenty years, we have seen a 33 percent decline in public seed breeding institutions.
Because seeds are the building blocks of our food system, public access to seeds is critical to the future of agriculture, and to all farmers’ ability to successfully adapt to the challenges of a changing climate. NSAC intends to bring this issue front and center during the consideration of the 2018 Farm Bill.
Happy Earth Day!
As you celebrate Earth Day this week, weekend, and every day, we hope that you will also remember to celebrate farmers and ranchers who work hard every day to increase the sustainability and resilience of their operations. All of our food comes from or is dependent on our earth and natural resources, and because we all need to eat, we should all keep the inherent connection between agriculture and environmental stewardship in mind. NSAC will be at the forefront of fighting to defend and strengthen stewardship and research programs in the upcoming appropriations process, as well as through the 2018 Farm Bill. Stay tuned to our website for ongoing updates, and have a happy Earth Day!