Extreme heat, extended drought, frequent 100-year and 500-year floods, severe storms, wildfires, new pest pressures – a drumbeat of climate change impacts are battering the country’s farmers and ranchers. Climate change challenges are particularly difficult for small growers, beginning farmers and farmers of color who also face systemic disenfranchisement in the form of unequal and insecure access to land, consolidation trends, and economic models and government subsidies that favor industrial agriculture.
The current prevalent farming system makes climate change worse, as it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The agriculture sector is a big contributor to nitrous oxide emissions and methane emissions, as well as carbon dioxide emissions. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to make changes now to address these problems and transform our farm and food system, and Congress can help.
Congress is at work right now on a major spending bill that takes direct aim at addressing the climate crisis through investments in climate-friendly systems and institutions. Lawmakers have already indicated that agriculture spending is on the table: now we need to make sure Congress makes investments that will have the biggest positive impact on our farm and food system. A budget reconciliation bill must allocate more money to climate change-mitigating conservation practices and climate research, foster resilient regional food systems, and ensure that farmers of color have equitable access to climate investments across the board.
We already know how to farm in ways that are better for the climate and for our future → check out these New Mexico farms and ranches using innovative and time tested approaches to management for soil health. Farms can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon in healthy soils, and take steps to adapt to climate change impacts, but they need support in the form of tools and resources to transition to better systems.
Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase funding for USDA programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and others which help farmers convert to more sustainable practices –e.g. keeping living plants in the ground all year, planting perennial crops, integrating livestock into cropping systems and carefully manage grazing. Well-managed working lands can return atmospheric carbon back to the ground, rehydrate soils, increase biodiversity, and buffer the impacts of climate change. Conservation programs promote proven climate solutions that many farmers have already adopted, realizing both environmental and financial success.
CSP offers specific funds for beginning and so-called socially disadvantaged farmers. As witnessed in the well-known case Pigford v. Glickman, USDA has often failed to equitably provide funds to farmers of color and has had a poor record of investigating their own failures. Allocating more funds specifically to farmers that have been historically discriminated against is a key piece of redressing this problem.
Helping farmers convert their working lands to more sustainable –even regenerative– systems is one of the most important ways of preparing for a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions future. The budget reconciliation process currently working its way through Congress is focused on both climate change and environmental justice. It presents an important opportunity to make a key down payment on tackling these major challenges by ensuring investments in high-impact, on-farm conservation, equitable access to resources, critical climate research, and more.