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Agriculture

Billions Directed To Food & Agriculture Is The “Largest Since The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s”

The Inflation Reduction Act recognizes the critical role that US farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners play in addressing the climate crisis.

The biggest climate bill that the US has ever passed also addresses food and agriculture. Several areas of conservation, food protection, and financial insulation for at-risk farmers are bundled in climate-friendly farm practices.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) contains a multitude of provisions within the Senate bill and includes a subset of nearly $38 billion for agricultural conservation, credit, renewable energy, and forestry.

Among others, the law will support innovative, cost-effective ways to measure and verify climate benefits, including through USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Conservation Technical Assistance. Here are some highlights.

Conservation Stewardship Program

The biggest recipient of the IRA is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which has a total of $3.25 billion in new funding for FYs 2023-2026. For years, demand from farmers for CSP grants has overwhelmed the Congressional expenditures available for it. The IRA directs this new financing with climate-focused “guardrails.” The funds can be spent on “1 or more agricultural conservation practices, enhancements, or bundles that the USDA determines directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.”

The IRA food and agriculture funding explicitly extends support for organic producers and those transitioning to organic farming within the CSP through 2031. It helps farmers defray costs for implementing practices like cover crops to keep soil and fertilizer in place over the winter, buffer strips that prevent severe soil erosion from storms, and hedgerows as habitat for wild bees and other beneficial insects.

Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that these investments within the IRA are “the largest since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.”

They will help more farmers plant perennial and cover crops, diversify crop rotations, and pursue other practices that science has shown to store carbon in the soil and make farmland spongier and, therefore, more resilient to flood and drought. Importantly, the funding will layer “more hard numbers to what we already know about the benefits of healthy, carbon-rich soil” within the carbon sequestration and GHG emissions quantification program.

It’s climate focused at a time when climate impacts on the nation’s farms and communities such as the drought in California’s Central Valley and the horrific flooding in Kentucky “are becoming dire,” Perry Stillerman adds.

Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Wired celebrated the last-minute efforts of Democratic senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with results of $3.1 billion in relief for farmers whose “agricultural operations are at financial risk.” The benefit is a bundle of USDA-backed loans and $2.2 billion in financial assistance directed at farmers who can show they’ve “experienced discrimination” in accessing USDA agricultural lending programs. These provisions are a response to the long history of racism at the USDA.

Denial of federal benefits to Black farmers, even after the civil rights laws of the 1960s, was indicative of how “racism circulated through federal, state, and county USDA offices, and employees at every level bent civil rights laws and subverted governmental programs in order to punish black farmers,” according to scholar Pete Daniel.

The USDA is the source of allotments, credit, information, and access to government largess. According to a Politico investigation, the agency granted loans to only 37% of Black applicants in 2020 in one program that helps farmers pay for land, equipment, and repairs but accepted 71% of applications from white farmers.

In the 2021 American Rescue Plan, Congress attempted to address some of this injustice by allotting money to erase the debt of thousands of farmers of color with outstanding USDA-backed loans. The plan, however, to forgive loans to farmers of color continues to be tied up in legal challenges filed by white farmers. But, even if actions withstand court challenges, the USDA will still confront years of systemic discriminatory policies and processes and will need to convince Black farmers and their advocates that change has come.

“I am excited that the Inflation Reduction Act clarifies and reappropriates this funding from the American Rescue Plan,” Senator Booker told Mother Jones. “By giving USDA the authority to modify debt for distressed borrowers, we will keep family farmers around the country on their farms. For those farmers, particularly Black farmers, who have suffered USDA discrimination, this legislation sets in motion a process to right those wrongs.”

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) has been designated $8.45 billion to provide technical and financial support to food and agriculture producers implementing conservation practices. The IRA states that EQIP proposals that utilize “diet and feed management to reduce enteric methane emissions from ruminants” should be prioritized for funding. Climate-smart agriculture initiatives to incentivize farmers to adopt nutrient management activities are part of the framework. The objective is to ensure both farm production and environmental goals — clean water, clean air, and healthy soils — are achieved on the farm.

Friends of the Earth, however, says that a significant portion of EQIP funds support practices that do not reduce GHG emissions and fund highly polluting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that are actively making the climate crisis worse. Meanwhile, they say thousands of farmers applying for money for beneficial practices are turned away.

Final Thoughts about the IRA & Food & Agriculture

Although the IRA has been law for less than a month, the work to begin the transformational investments is already underway, with the long-reaching goal of a more equitable and climate-resilient food and farm system.

Farm groups including the National Farmers Union and the National Young Farmers Coalition pushed for the IRA. So, too, did the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which muses whether the USDA will initiate a formal rule making process or head in a different directions. The Coalition “strongly believes that implementation of the IRA should be transparent, inclusive, and, ultimately, result in increased investment for solutions which promote both climate mitigation and adaptation.”

It’s important to note that less than 5% of this IRA food and agricultture funding will be channeled into changing farming practices around the reduction of agricultural emissions, which currently accounts for 11% of US GHG emissions. The spending also ignores agriculture’s biggest climate culprit: meat and dairy production.

 
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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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