Once every five years, Congress gears up to pass the Farm Bill, legislation that authorizes a broad range of agriculture and food policies ranging from crop insurance to nutrition assistance programs. It also plays an important role in addressing climate change in the food and land use sectors, including potential carbon removal efforts.
With divided control of the 118th Congress, the Farm Bill represents one of only a handful of bills nearly guaranteed to move to the president’s desk by the end of 2024, making it one of the few legislative avenues for advancing climate policy. Because of this, we expect that an immense amount of energy and attention will be focused on climate policy in this year’s Farm Bill.
How the Farm Bill impacts climate change
The agricultural sector is both a significant contributor to climate change and a potential solution. According to the USDA, agriculture was responsible for around 11% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. However, farms, ranches, and forest lands also have the potential to mitigate their climate impact, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and, in some cases, sequester carbon through innovation and climate-smart practices such as precision agriculture, cover cropping, and agroforestry.
The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill composed of twelve legislative pieces known as titles. These cover diverse topics, providing roughly half a trillion dollars in funding for various USDA functions over a five-year period. Among policies for nutrition, rural development, and other topics affecting the agricultural industry and food security, the bill includes Conservation, Forestry, and Energy titles that stand to affect climate outcomes.
The current Farm Bill was passed in 2018 and sets agriculture policy through the end of Fiscal Year 2023, which ends September 30, 2023. After Nutrition (SNAP benefits) and Crop Insurance, the most contentious part of the Farm Bill is expected to be climate provisions, particularly the climate aspects of the Conservation and Energy titles.
Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and the new House Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson (R-PA) have signaled they would like to work together in a bipartisan way to get the new bill done before the 2023 expiration of the current Farm Bill, but recent reauthorizations have tended to drag into the second year of a Congressional session, so final passage sometime in 2024 is likely. In the President’s Budget released earlier this month, the White House laid out President Biden’s desire to promote “climate smart agriculture and forestry” in the Farm Bill. The budget recommends that the Farm Bill “address climate change through voluntary incentives to reduce climate risk and improvements to crop insurance” and “maintain a commitment to conservation programs and investments in clean energy.”
Five ways the 2023 Farm Bill could shape climate policy:
1. Incentivizing sustainable agriculture
Funding agricultural conservation programs
A key way that the Farm Bill can support a healthier climate and reduce agricultural emissions is through funding for conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill included around $60 billion in mandatory funding for conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). These programs provide financial incentives for farmers and ranchers to implement conservation practices that improve soil health, reduce erosion, and in some cases increase carbon sequestration. These programs also promote general biodiversity through programs like the CRP, which focuses on ecosystem restoration and preservation.
Sustainable agriculture research and development
The Farm Bill importantly supports research and development of climate-smart agricultural practices. The Research and Extension title includes funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which supports research on topics such as soil health, sustainable agriculture, and climate resilience. This research, brought to farmers and ranchers by the extension services that follow, can help them adopt practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.
2. Enabling regional-specific climate decision making
USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and Forest Service host a network of ten Climate Hubs across the country that link USDA research and program agencies. Their goal is to develop and deliver science-based, region-specific information to agricultural and natural resource managers that enable climate-informed decision making. Increased funding for these hubs in the Farm Bill would mean expanded capacity to research climate impacts at a region-specific level.
3. Tackling food waste emissions
Food waste is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the Farm Bill includes provisions to encourage food recovery and donation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill established a Liaison for Food Loss and Waste Reduction to coordinate federal, state, local, and nongovernmental programs to measure and reduce food waste.
4. Promoting renewable energy and bioenergy in agriculture
The bill includes funding for renewable energy programs such as the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which supports the installation of renewable energy systems and the purchase of precision agriculture equipment on farms and ranches to increase the sustainability of on farm operations. REAP is a key tool for agricultural producers and rural small businesses who face many disadvantages and obstacles from the climate crisis and will need extra support to successfully navigate the energy transition.
The Farm Bill also plays a role in promoting bioenergy, particularly through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative (BRDI). BRDI provides for coordination of biomass research and development between the USDA and the Department of Energy (DOE), including life cycle analyses of biofuels. BRDI seeks to foster significant commercial production of biofuels, bio-based energy innovations, development of bio-based feedstocks, and development of bio-based products and processes, including cost-competitive cellulosic ethanol. With a greater focus on biofuels that have lower life cycle carbon emissions, the transportation sector has more options to decarbonize. The aviation sector could certainly benefit from large volumes of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
5. Promoting equity in agriculture
The Farm Bill presents an important opportunity to make investments in socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as they face a number of barriers to entry. Many have historically faced systemic discrimination and have often been excluded from traditional agricultural programs. Congress could build on the success of the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the 2501 Program, referring to the section of the 1990 Farm Bill in which it was established). Increasing investments in the 2501 Program can help to address disparities in access to resources and support. Congress could also increase opportunities for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers to access federal grants for conservation and local food systems.
While the text of the 2023 Farm Bill is not yet available, we expect increased attention from climate advocates around programs relating to conservation, research and development, and renewable energy. The bill has the potential to help farmers, ranchers, and the broader agriculture community adopt practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition, the Farm Bill is an opportunity to help address other climate-related issues, such as food waste and environmental justice, and promote more sustainable and resilient food, fuel, and fiber sectors.