Protect Funding for USDA Research into Climate Impacts on Agriculture
VABF joins 50 other organizations in signing letter to House Appropriators
As the climate crisis unfolds, increased federal investment in research at the intersection of agriculture and climate will play a critical role in empowering organic and regenerative farmers to thrive and to become part of the solution, and in protecting the livelihoods of all farmers and food security across the US. Yet, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture drew up a proposal that would slash discretionary funding for USDA programs by 30% ($8.2 billion), would eliminate “funding for climate hubs and climate change research” and for “conservation equity agreements,” and would rescind $500 million in Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy development projects.
And we are fighting back. In a June 9 letter delivered to House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Andy Harris and Ranking Member Sanford Bishop, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and 50 other food, farm, conservation, and rural development organizations including VABF urged them to protect publicly funded agriculture research, especially funding for USDA’s innovative climate change research.
Take Action – especially if you are in Ben Cline’s Congressional District
Rep Ben Cline (R-6th District in VA) serves on the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee. If he is your congressman, call his DC office at (202) 225-5431 today to urge him to support full discretionary funding for agricultural research and renewable energy projects, especially for the USDA climate hubs, climate change research, and Inflation Reduction Act funding for Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) projects.
Farm Bill Updates and Action Items
Currently, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are hard at work on the 2023 Farm Bill. Although other urgent matters, notably the debt ceiling negotiations, have somewhat delayed the process, things are moving ahead. In recent weeks, a number of key “marker bills,” some based on parts of the Agriculture Resilience Act, have been introduced that, if integrated into the coming Farm Bill, will help US farmers and ranchers meet the challenges of climate disruptions and realize their potential to contribute to climate solutions. It is not too late to call our Senators and your Representative to urge them to cosponsor one or more of these bills.
Note that, at this time with a divided Congress, the Farm Bill is our best hope for substantive climate mitigation and resilience legislation that can help the US meet its Paris Agreement commitments and protect us all from the worst impacts of the climate crisis. NSAC is following up on the highly successful Farmers’ Rally for Resilience in March with nationwide grassroots and direct advocacy efforts including a recent farmer fly-in to DC to garner additional co-sponsors for these bills, thereby increasing their chances of becoming part of the 2023 Farm Bill.
How to Take Action
Check out the following list and see which one(s) speak to you most, then contact Senators Mark Warner (call 202-224-2023, or email Jahnavi Patel, Legislative Correspondent at Jahnavi_patel@kaine.senate.gov) and Tim Kaine (call 202-224-4024 or email Taylor Durbin, Legislative Correspondent at Taylor_Durbin@warner.senate.gov), and your Representative (check their website for their DC phone number). Introduce yourself, state how the climate crisis or other challenges have impacted your farming operation and how the bill(s) you are advocating can help you better meet the challenges and contribute to solutions. Then ask them to co-sponsor the bill(s).
Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act
Introduced on June 15 by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tina Smith (D-MN), John Fetterman (D-PA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act would:
- Devote $75 million per year in USDA research funding for development of new public crop cultivars and livestock breeds.
- Prioritize development of regionally adapted, climate-resilient cultivars and breeds that provide nutritious food and meet the needs of local and Indigenous populations.
- Establish inter-agency coordination to optimize return on breeding research investments.
This Act would begin to reverse a decades-long trend of declining funding for public plant and animal breeding, a trend that has severely degraded crop and livestock genetic diversity, and thereby limited US agricultural resilience to climatic and other disruptions. Its inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill will play a central role in making it a bill for climate mitigation and resilience.
Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR)
House of Representatives
In April of this year, Representatives Dan Newhouse (R-WA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), and Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Strengthening Organic Agriculture Research (SOAR) Act to increase USDA investment in organic agriculture research. The bill’s key provisions include:
- Increasing mandatory funding for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) by $10 million each year to reach $100 million in 2028.
- Providing first-time Congressionally authorized funding for the Researching Transition to Organic Program (currently known as the Organic Transitions program or ORG) at $10 million per year during 2024-26 and $20 million in 2027-28.
- Doubles funding for the Organic Data Initiative and charges the USDA Economic Research Service to document the socio-economic benefits of organic agriculture.
See the SOAR Act one-pager written by Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) for more information. Ongoing OFRF review of these programs shows that they continue to provide vital practical outcomes for organic producers, such as new cultivars suited to organic systems and advanced soil health and resilience strategies, and that the two programs play equally vital and complementary roles to help organic operations thrive (OREI) and to overcome barriers that farmers face in making the transition to organic (ORG). Providing first-time Congressional authorization for the Researching Transition to Organic Program and expanding funding for both programs are vital for realizing the climate mitigation and resilience potential of organic farming.
Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) serves on the House Agriculture Committee, has been a strong champion for organic agriculture, and is likely to co-sponsor the SOAR Act if she hears from enough of us that it is important for our livelihoods. Call her office at 202-225-2815 or email her staff person for agriculture, Isabel Coughlin at Isabel.Coughlin@mail.house.gov.
Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act of 2023
Senate S. 1778
Solar photovoltaics offers a low-carbon energy source, but it takes a lot of space – i.e., land – to meet a substantial fraction of today’s energy demands. Agrivoltaics is an approach to integrating solar panels into agricultural production in which no land area is lost from production and the panels are deployed in a way that does not interfere with – and in some cases may enhance – production (e.g. by providing shade for grazing livestock). The bipartisan Agrivoltaics Research and Demonstration Act, introduced by Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Mike Braun (R-IN) would support collaborative efforts by USDA and the Department of Energy (DoE) to research, develop, demonstrate, and support widespread adoption of this approach to integrating sustainable food/fiber and renewable energy production.
The bill would authorize up to $15 million per year in funding to support research into regionally optimized panel design and deployment for different cropping and grazing systems, and to establish of a network of demonstration sites linked to the USDA Regional Climate Hubs.
Local Farms and Food Act
Senate S 1205 and House of Representatives HR 2723
The bipartisan Local Farms and Food Act, introduced in April by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and in the House by Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) would strengthen the Local Agriculture Markets Program (LAMP), the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentives Program (GusNIP), and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program by increasing their funding, reducing matching fund requirements, and otherwise improving program access for historically underserved communities. Specific provisions include:
- Streamlined application process for smaller (< $100K) Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Grants.
- Reduction in Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) matching requirement from 50% to 25% for smaller-scale producers.
- Increased range of activities that can be funded through LAMP.
Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act
House of Representatives HR 1517 and Senate S 747
An alarming number of farmers in Maine have learned in recent years that their soils, water, and farm products have been contaminated by perfluoro alkyl substances (PFAS) also known as “forever chemicals”, which can have adverse environmental and human health impacts at the observed levels. Some farmers have been forced to go out of business and leave their farms to protect their own health and that of their customers. In some cases, the source of contamination was biosolids (sewage sludge) land application that occurred more than 25 years ago.
While this problem was first detected and extensively studied in Maine, reports of PFAS soil contamination have cropped up in other states and locales, and it is likely a widespread problem. one that is not directly climate-related yet likely to compound the already severe impacts of climate change on farmers and the agricultural sector.
The Relief for Farmers Hit with PFAS Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced by the entire Maine delegation – Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden; and Senators Susan Collins and Angus King. It would provide funding to help farmers implement PFAS mitigation strategies and techniques, provide income replacement when farm products cannot be sold because of their PFAS levels, help severely affected farmers relocate, and conduct additional research to develop strategies to mitigate the problem.
Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA)
This is the “flagship” climate-in-agriculture bill, upon which some of the above marker bills are based. Reintroduced into the current Congress on March 28, 2023, by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) as H.R. 1840 and S. 1016, the ARA provides a roadmap to a climate neutral and climate resilient US agricultural system. This year’s ARA has been improved in several ways:
- It adds the following statutory goal for the USDA Research, Education, and Economics mission area: “Develop food systems that are healthful, sustainable, equitable, and resilient to extreme weather and other impacts of climate change and other potential intersecting global and national disruptions.”
- It coordinates USDA-s regional Climate Hubs and Long Term Agroecological Research sites for enhanced efficacy and information sharing.
- It increases emphasis on agroforestry and perennial plantings in conservation programs.
Here in Virginia, Reps. Donald Beyer (D-8th), Gerald Connolly (D-11th) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-7th) are co-sponsors for the ARA – if you are in their district, call and thank them! Virginia’s Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, are strong conservation advocates and might be willing to co-sponsor the ARA if they hear from many of us how important it is to our livelihoods and to the future of US agriculture and food security. Bipartisan support for the ARA would be ideal – so ask your Representative to come aboard regardless of their party affiliation.
Other Federal Farm Policy News
Letter to Congress: Protect Fair Competition in Livestock Markets
In addition to slashing USDA discretionary spending by 30% and taking aim against USDA climate research and racial equity initiatives, the proposal submitted by the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee includes a rider that would bar the USDA from implementing new rules updating the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 with urgently needed protections for both contract and independent livestock and poultry farmers. In response to this capitulation to corporate agribusiness interests, 102 groups joined NSAC in sending a letter to Congress urging them to protect farmers’ rights by removing this rider from the final Appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year.
Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities (PCSC)
Who benefits most?
In 2022, USDA made a major investment in “climate smart agriculture,” awarding funding to nonprofit, for-profit, university, and governmental entities to explore commodity-based approaches to advancing climate smart agriculture. Awardees for 69 large projects received a total of $2.8 billion (average $40 million per project), and a separate set of 70 smaller projects with a specific emphasis on engaging and serving Black, Indigenous, and other minority constituencies received a total of $325 million (average $4.57 million per project). The good news is that three NSAC member groups – National Center for Appropriate Technology, PASA Sustainable Farming, and Marbleseed (formerly MOSES) – are leading three of the projects, and 12 other NSAC member groups are major partners in other projects. The concern is that USDA has provided public access to so little information about the content and goals of the PCSC projects that it is difficult to assess the potential impacts of these projects and how effectively they will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. See NSAC blog on the PCSC for more analysis.
Where do EQIP Dollars Go?
Analysis by Michael Happ, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was established in 1985 with the goal of supporting farmers to protect soil, water, and other resources, through cost share for specific practices with defined criteria. Some EQIP funding goes for highly beneficial practices such as Cover Crop. In 2022, a total of $129 million in EQIP cost share supported over 15,500 producers to plant cover crops on well over a million acres. However, EQIP also supports high-cost infrastructure such as manure lagoons and covers that enable inherently unsustainable confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to stay in operation. While only seven EQIP contracts provided cost-share for anaerobic digesters (another CAFO infrastructure practice), these contracts averaged over $280,000 each, and the current push for anaerobic digesters as a “climate smart” practice could multiply the number of contracts and gobble up many millions in EQIP dollars for a false climate solution. See this blog post on IATP’s analysis of EQIP.