Last month, Representative Chellie Pingree (D ME-1) introduced a bold and comprehensive policy proposal — the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA, H.R.5861) — to set farmers up with the tools they need to tackle the climate crisis. At a time when farmers are on the heels of a difficult year and preparing for another season, the new proposal offers a welcome dose of hope and inspiration. Even better, it’s steeped in science. Here are 6 things to know:
- The ARA takes a systems approach. Climate change is bringing a wide range of challenges to US farmers and food system stakeholders, and the new proposal from Representative Pingree responds to these challenges with an appropriately diverse range of solutions. The vast suite of tools will put support in a range of areas where it’s needed. For example, investments will range from supporting farmers in improving agricultural practices on crop and livestock operations, to expanding renewable energy use in farms across the nation and helping to curb senseless losses of farm and food waste.
- The ARA proposes to quadruple agricultural science funding. With its call to massively increase public agricultural research and extension funding, this policy proposal should appeal to all who love science — including the farmers who can benefit from it. This is especially true considering that the US investment in public agricultural research has been in decline in recent decades. Further, the USDA’s leading competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), has not yet received anywhere near the full $700 million authorized for it (the maximum amount appropriated so far was $415 million in 2019). Meanwhile, other key research programs, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, which funds critical farmer participatory research, receive far less funds. The new proposal would ensure that these and other programs have a better chance of getting the most effective solutions into the hands of farmers.
- The ARA aims to boost sorely needed funding for agroecological and climate change science. The new proposal is a big win for agricultural research overall, but what’s really exciting is the emphasis on research tailored to agroecology and climate change. As I’ve written in the past, agroecological research has received relatively limited investment from the USDA, despite demand from scientists who have noted that it offers opportunities to address many of today’s challenges, including the climate crisis, water quality, biodiversity loss, and more. While some recent investments have been steps in the right direction, the new proposal would go further to prioritize relatively untapped areas. For one, it expands such research within the competitive grant programs at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (including AFRI) and at the Agricultural Research Service (the USDA’s internal research branch). Among other improvements, it would also fund two existing networks (the Climate Hubs and the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research Network) that could serve as a foundation for the multi-year, regionally focused science that is essential, particularly during changing times.
- The ARA supports science-based, time-tested programs. Wisely, the ARA doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Given the need for swift action, the commitments to invest heavily in proven programs is a smart approach. An important example is the planned expanded investment in the Conservation Stewardship Program — a program that we have found has a high return on investment due to the practices that it incentivizes as well as its holistic approach. The new proposal would also leverage other popular and highly effective programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
- The ARA commits to establishing new, science-driven initiatives. While the new proposal builds on and leverages a wide range of existing programs, it doesn’t stop short of innovating. Fortunately, proposed new areas of work incorporate strong science. For example, the bill calls for a new National Academies of Sciences study investigating the connections between human health and soil health, to help identify the most promising agricultural pathways for people and planet. It also directs the USDA to establish science-based criteria for new incentives, to ensure that such efforts deliver the best possible outcomes.
- The ARA is anchored in science-informed goals. The new proposal puts forward a dozen specific goals for 2040, all of which are highly ambitious, and based in science. The topline goal is to require US agriculture — which currently contributes 9 percent of the nation’s heat-trapping emissions — to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. To get there, the multi-pronged approach includes: restoring at least half of lost soil carbon (while no easy task, scientists have identified several ways to work toward this, and achieving it brings co-benefits), maintaining year-round cover on at least 75 percent of cropland acres (a goal which already has momentum, and which can help with both soil carbon storage and building resilience to increasingly extreme weather), eliminating farmland and grassland conversion (which often leads to soil carbon loss, and threatens future farming legacies), reducing food waste by at least 75% (a reasonable goal considering that up to 40 percent of food in the US is currently wasted, which causes climate emissions at landfills and also represents preventable emissions and other environmental consequences all along the supply chain), and more.
In short, this new policy proposal leads with science to set out a bold and inspiring vision for a world in which farmers are key players in combating climate change. It recognizes that the science, practice, and policies we have today give us a lot to work with, while also acknowledging the need to accelerate our learning, investments, and actions along the way. It may just be a first step, but it puts our best foot forward.
Featured image: Desoto Lakes Organic Fields, by Cynthia Shahan