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Congressional Hearings Examine Climate Change and Agriculture

May 28, 2019

Drought stricken field. Drought can be one of several reasons for a prevented planting claim.
Drought stricken field. Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Underscoring the growing national awareness of and concern over climate change’s impact on agriculture, last week Congress held two hearings in advance of their Memorial Day recess to examine the issue in detail.

In the Senate, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing titled “Climate Change and the Agriculture Sector” which discussed how agriculture can be a vital part of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. The hearing included unique perspectives from farmers and ranchers, who discussed their challenges dealing with climate change impacts and what tools and resources they needed to become more resilient. On the other side of Capitol Hill, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ hearing was entitled “Creating a Climate Resilient America.” This hearing offered perspective on the effects of climate change and the importance of building resilient systems and communities for several different sectors, including agriculture.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) applauds both committees for examining and highlighting opportunities for climate change adaptation and mitigation within agriculture.

NSAC’s Position on Climate Change and Agriculture

NSAC, along with the hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers within our member network, believes that climate change presents a severe and immediate threat to agriculture and to rural communities across the country. We also believe that farmers and ranchers can, and must, be part of mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Farmers and ranchers are on the frontlines of climate change – over the last several decades they’ve increasingly seen their businesses and communities ravaged by drought, flood, extreme temperatures, severe storms, and shifting pest and disease pressures. However, American producers are not sitting idly by in the face of these threats. As stewards of the land, our farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to lead the charge on climate change mitigation and adaptation – many producers are already implementing practices and utilizing programs that help them to increase their sustainability and resilience to a changing climate. For example, producers across the country are implementing soil health management practices that sequester and store carbon and adopting agricultural systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

NSAC believes that our farmers and ranchers are a crucial part of developing impactful climate change solutions, and as such, they must have a seat at the table as policy makers determine how to address this pressing issue.

Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s hearing included testimony from four witnesses: Kansas rancher Debbie Lyons-Blythe, Nebraska corn and soy farmer Matthew Rezak, Professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis Dr. Frank Mitloehner, and former Secretary of Agriculture and current President and CEO of U.S. Dairy Export Council Tom Vilsack.

Committee members and witnesses alike spoke in the hearing about the critical role that farm bill conservation programs can play in advancing climate change mitigation and adaptation. In written testimony delivered to the Committee in advance of the hearing, NSAC highlighted several 2018 Farm Bill provisions that are central to advancing mitigation and adaptation strategies – many of which the Coalition helped to champion.

Additionally, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) referenced several provisions from a marker bill that she introduced amidst the farm bill debate, the GROW Act, which were ultimately included in the final farm bill:

“…I supported a number of initiatives to increase support for conservation activities that benefit soil health including cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and advanced grazing management…these improvements to increase adoption of many of the most impactful activities for soil health as well as for increasing access to land and conservation support for young and beginning farmers will play a critical role in supporting our farmers and ranchers, especially in Iowa, who continue to face devastating storms and of course extreme weather events as they work to build soil health, productivity, and resiliency in the face of all of those various challenges.”

Additionally, Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), who introduced the SOIL Stewardship Act, spoke to the importance of several key reforms included in the new farm bill. In particular, Senator Smith noted the importance of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to farmers in her state and across the country:

“In the 2018 Farm Bill, we included several provisions that helped farmers improve soil health and carbon sequestration on working lands…I worked to make sure that the farm bill included increased incentive payments within the Conservation Stewardship Program to help achieve these goals. And in Minnesota, CSP is incredibly popular and important. We have nearly 7,000 CSP contracts that have been awarded to Minnesota farmers and ranchers.”

Matt Rezac also spoke to the importance of farm bill conservation programs. When asked by Senator Bennet (D-CO) about what incentives Congress could provide to promote conservation activities and sustainable agriculture efforts more broadly, Rezac responded:

“The Conservation Stewardship Program, that’s a great spot to be at. It’s just getting it out there so people see it and know how to take advantage of it. That’s our number one thing right now…”

While the farm bill included several important program improvements benefitting soil health and carbon sequestration, the witnesses also underscored that more investment in climate change mitigation and adaptation is absolutely needed. There was strong recognition in their comments that, as farmers continue to struggle with extreme weather and a lagging farm economy, there is significant need for additional financial and technical assistance for programs that support climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. It was also clear from the testimonies that farmers and ranchers are committed to improving soil health, sequestering carbon, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and building resilient systems, and that there is also a definite need for investment to support them in those efforts.

The importance of data and metrics related to carbon sequestration and climate mitigation benefits was also discussed at length at the Senate hearing. There was discussion around carbon markets, including the importance of data and measurement to eventually be able to ensure that participants are appropriately incentivized and compensated for the benefits they provide. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) brought up the provisions from the Agriculture Data Act that were included in the 2018 Farm Bill, and drove home the importance of having data on the conservation practices and systems that help farmers and ranchers reduce risk and increase profitability. 

NSAC issued public thanks to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) for their leadership in holding this important hearing and for providing the space for productive conversation between committee members and witnesses. We look forward to working with leadership and Agriculture Committee members as discussions of the important role that agriculture must play in climate change mitigation and adaptation continue.

House Select Committee Hearing

A few days following the Senate hearing, the House Select Committee continued the conversation by hosting a hearing on climate resiliency. Witnesses participating in the House hearing spoke to the importance of preparing for the consequences of the climate crisis by building resilient communities and systems. They represented diverse perspectives and covered topics including but not limited to coastal communities, infrastructure protection, rural areas, and agriculture.

Matt Russell, a fifth-generation farmer and Executive Director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light addressed the role of agriculture in solving the climate crisis in his testimony. Russell also spoke about the intersection between on-farm mitigation activities and those that adapt to build more resilient systems. Russell began his testimony by highlighting the capability of farmers and ranchers to lead work on climate change mitigation and adaptation:

“We must start believing in American farmers. We can solve global warming by unleashing the power of American farmers to solve problems. It’s what we do on a daily basis. Regardless what we’re producing on our own farms, we’re all managing complex systems. We survive because we’re masters at solving problems. The question today isn’t ‘do you believe in climate change?’ The question is, ‘do you believe in American farmers and their ability to innovate when confronted with major challenges?’ This committee is answering that question with a profound yes! By the very nature of including agriculture in this hearing, it’s clear this committee wants to start investing in and empowering American farmers.”

Russell also called on the Committee to ensure that incentives are available to reward farmers for reducing greenhouse gas pollution, building soil health, improving air and water quality, and increasing economic opportunities in rural communities. In response to a question from Committee Chairwoman Kathy Castor (D-FL), Russell elaborated on the types of activities that provide climate benefits, including conservation tillage, permaculture, integrating livestock and managed grazing, extending crop rotations with additional crops, and renewable energy. He highlighted the dual benefits of these systems:

“When you stack all of those [agricultural activities that provide climate benefits] together, it makes our rural economy and our farmers more resilient to extreme weather because the soils can hold more water when it rains and can have water stored when it’s dry. And it also captures carbon, providing an additional service.”

In response to questions from the Committee, Russell also discussed the diverse groups of farmers and ranchers who are already coming to the table and want to be part of the solution – from large commodity operations to small produce growers who farm on just a couple of acres. He also brought up similar ideas that were discussed at the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing. Russell highlighted farm bill opportunities that could be used to better support climate change mitigation and adaptation, and also the need to further expand on the tools and resources that are currently available through the farm bill. In discussing the types of incentives that are needed, Russell discussed conservation programs and policies, as well as the importance of incentivizing these systems through the federal crop insurance program.

In closing, Russell had the following suggestions for the Committee: 

“We need to increase the biological activity in the soil…the future is going to be about the biology of the soil. When you do that, you get that carbon out of the atmosphere through the plants, through the roots, through the biological activity, and it’s stored, it’s working in the soil. The result of that is that you increase organic matter tremendously, which, holds more water when it’s raining, has more water stored when it’s dry, so we get carbon sequestration, and we get more resiliency.”

Next Steps

NSAC and our 130+ member organizations across the country are committed to uplifting farmer voices as the national conversation around climate change moves forward. We urge policy makers to continue this important discussion, and to continue advancing programs and policies that support producers’ efforts to be part of mitigation and adaptation solutions.

Last week’s hearings were an important step forward in the necessary national discussion around climate change, its impacts, and intersections with agricultural and rural communities. We will likely see many more opportunities to continue the conversation as implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill moves forward. NSAC will continue to play an active role in ensuring that key farm bill climate change are implemented according to congressional design, and that our farmers and ranchers have a seat at the table as climate change solutions are crafted in Congress.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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