February 28, 2020
The New Deal had its Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) to address the pressing farm issues of its day in a powerful new way, one that became the predecessor of all subsequent federal farm bills. This week, Maine farmer and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) to address the most pressing farm issue of our day: climate change.
The bill establishes a set of aggressive but realistic goals for farmers to help mitigate climate change and increase agricultural resilience, starting with the overarching goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture by no later than 2040.
The legislation’s substantive programmatic sections are divided into six additional titles – agricultural research, soil health, farmland preservation and viability, pasture-based livestock, on-farm renewable energy, and food waste.
Each of those titles of the bill also have 2040 goals (and 2030 interim goals) attached to them, such as retaining year round cover on at least 75 percent of cropland acres, eliminating farmland and grassland conversion, increasing crop-livestock integration by at least 100 percent, tripling on-farm renewable energy production, and reducing food waste by 75 percent.
The bill directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop detailed action plans to help attain each of the goals.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many of its member organizations helped to develop the legislation and have endorsed the bill. We applaud Representative Pingree for her vision and leadership in setting the table for the critical legislative phase that must follow if agriculture is to survive and thrive and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.
For further information, please see Representative Pingree’s press release, the emerging list of endorsements, NSAC’s press comment, the section-by-section summary of the bill, and the text of the bill itself. Some of the extensive press coverage of the bill can be viewed here, here, and here.
The ARA is extensive, and we plan to cover specific pieces of the legislation in future blogs to give it the fuller attention it deserves. But to give readers a glimpse into all that it covers, here are some highlights.
Agricultural Research – The bill would authorize and increase funding for important existing, but never authorized, USDA programs, including the regional climate hubs run by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and U.S. Forest Service and ARS’ Long-Term Agroecological Research (LTAR) Network. It also proposes to pump $50 million a year into the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program in recognition of the outsized role SARE has played in soil health, cover cropping, and rotational grazing, creating a new Agriculture and Food System Resilience Initiative, including farmer and rancher research and demonstration. The ARA would also strategically invest in public breed and cultivar research to focus on the delivery of regionally adapted livestock breeds and crop cultivars to build agricultural resilience.
Soil Health – The ARA would expand funding for working lands conservation, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) (and its new Soil Health Demonstration Trials) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) (including a new CSP Innovation Grants program). The bill would also increase and assure steady future funding for technical assistance to producers in mitigating and adapting to climate change. A new block grant program to support rapidly emerging state-based soil health programs is also envisioned. Importantly, the bill would also expand current rules requiring farm subsidy recipients to control soil erosion to now also include soil health plans.
Farmland Preservation and Viability – Funding and authority for the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) would be expanded by the ARA to include a new subprogram for farm viability to develop and expand markets for farm products that significantly improve soil health. The tax code would be modified to exclude from capital gains a portion of gains from the sale of farmland to beginning, socially disadvantaged, young and veteran farmers and for the sale of permanent conservation easements to protect natural resources on working farmland. Funding for the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) would be increased, and recipients of farmland preservation funding would be required to have a conservation plan that includes soil health and GHG emissions reductions.
Pasture-Based Livestock – The ARA would revive the dormant Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative and create four new authorities: animal-raising claim labeling (e.g., grassfed, pasture-raised, no added hormones, etc.), with auditing and verification procedures; a grant program to assist very small meat processors serve the growing niche meat sector; an alternative manure management program to support non-digester dairy and livestock methane management strategies to reduce emissions; and a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pilot program to create long-term protection for 5 million acres of grassland at risk of conversion to cropping or development.
On-Farm Renewable Energy – The mainstay of the energy section of the bill is a big increase in funding and a variety of much-needed policy changes to the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The bill also directs USDA to do an urgent, detailed study, followed by a five year research and extension plan, of how to effectively do dual-use renewable energy and cropping or livestock systems on agricultural land in a way that increases renewable energy production without jeopardizing our food production capacity.
Food Waste – The food waste section would enact common sense changes to food quality and discard dates to better inform consumers and reduce waste. In addition, the bill would direct USDA to make composting a federal conservation practice standard eligible for assistance under the working lands conservation programs, a long overdue change that would help build soil health while making good use of agricultural and food wastes.
We expect two things to happen with the legislation this year. First, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis is due to issue its report on potential provisions for comprehensive climate legislation by the end of March. We hope that nearly all of the ARA provisions will be reflected in the agricultural section of their report. That report, in turn, will help influence the House’s work on climate bills this year and in the future. Second, as this year’s appropriations cycle gets underway, we anticipate a push to get some initial funding increases for some of the items in the bill and will help work to see that come to fruition. Longer-term, we hope the bill will provide a good solid list of practical ideas and funding requests as Congress tackles comprehensive climate legislation and the next farm bill in the coming years. The sooner agriculture has the tools and levels of investment needed to reach net zero, the better. With the increase in attention to this critical goal from all quarters of the agricultural community in recent years and months, we trust that the opportunity will not be missed in the immediate years ahead.
Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment