Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.
The $18.5 billion for “climate-smart” agriculture in Democrats’ landmark health-care and tax package was supposed to jump-start conservation programs ahead of next year’s farm bill.
Instead, it’s setting up a spending battle that may keep money for similar programs from being included in normally bipartisan agriculture legislation. Rather than furthering Democrats’ goal of mitigating climate change, the net effect of the higher spending could be to reduce the conservation focus in the 2023 farm bill.
The budget reconciliation measure (H.R. 5376) the Senate passed last weekend would provide additional money for the next four years of conservation agriculture programs, including a popular one that helps farmers implement sustainable water and soil techniques.
The House is set to clear the legislation Friday and President Joe Biden said he’d sign it.
Such conservation programs typically garner bipartisan support when they’re reauthorized every five years in the farm bill. The key difference is Democrats’ explicit focus on climate change in the spending bill, which targets agriculture’s emissions of two key contributors, carbon and nitrous oxide. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that over a tenth of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 came from agriculture.
Democrats and environmental lobbyists are banking on the additional spending paving the way for a more climate-focused farm bill next year. But a top Republican says the opposite could be true.
“If they go down this road, we very well might be looking at reconciliation as the only way future farm bills get written,” said Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), the ranking member on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, lamenting the party-line changes to agriculture programs. “Whoever holds the pen wields the fate for vital programs that farmers, ranchers, and foresters depend on.”
Boozman could hold controlling influence over next year’s farm bill if Republicans flip the Senate in November’s midterm election. “We’ve always said — those of us who have worked on agriculture — you don’t reopen the farm bill, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” he said, adding that Democrats’ passage of their legislation would affect his approach to the 2023 version.
Conservation Versus Climate
The GOP traditionally supports conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, that are largely focused on helping farmers safeguard their resources with methods like planting cover crops to improve soil health. The programs’ broader climate impacts have often been seen as a fringe benefit.
Many conservation programs implemented by the federal government “have co-benefits for environment and climate” even if they don’t explicitly target emissions in their authorizing language, said Melissa Ho, a senior vice president for freshwater and food at the World Wildlife Fund.
The programs help farmers and ranchers keep their land viable, and “the long-term sustainability of the ranch and farm itself is to help ensure that there’s viability to produce food in the future, in addition to meeting the needs and conservation goals,” Ho said.
The party-line tax and climate package is meant to not only support more farmers getting conservation money — but also to draw a connection between conserving farming resources and fighting climate change.
The climate-focused conservation funding is a “win-win” for farmers and the environment, Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in a fact sheet about the bill. Planting cover crops, for instance, traps nutrients in the soil, reducing erosion and runoff while also improving crop output for farmers.
The reconciliation funding would help farmers become less reliant on nitrogen fertilizer for their crops, said Ben Lilliston, a director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Nitrogen fertilizer use is the biggest contributor to nitrous oxide emissions — which pose a threat to the ozone layer and trap heat in the atmosphere.
As the American West experiences its worst drought in more than 1,200 years, and raging wildfires devastate cropland, Democratic lawmakers argue farmers aren’t just key for solving the climate crisis: they’re already being affected by it.
The reconciliation funding is a reflection of the key role conservation plays in mitigating climate change, said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who sits on the agriculture committee.
“We’ll never be able to solve this issue that we’re facing without agriculture’s full participation,” he added. “And I think over the years, we’re going to see the farm bill become more and more committed to that in a bipartisan way.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), another committee member, predicted “a vigorous debate” if lawmakers try to add specific climate-related conservation funding to the farm bill.
Sam Kieffer, vice president of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, an agriculture lobbying group, said Congress should instead “focus on policy that addresses high input costs and spurs economic growth.”
“We are concerned that negotiating farm policy as work begins on the bipartisan farm bill process could upend the delicate balance of what traditionally makes farm bills successful,” Keiffer said in a statement.
Boozman took issue with how the climate and tax bill was crafted. While farm bills go through many rounds of hearings, he said, the party-line bill hasn’t had the same level of stakeholder input.
Further, Boozman said the inclusion of agriculture funding in reconciliation “has changed the dynamic” of bipartisanship on the committee.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a key voice on the agriculture committee, also lamented the Democrats-only budget bill but said it was critical to have enough funding for conservation programs.
“We’re going to have to enhance these programs next year when we write the farm bill,” he said.
And Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) disputed the idea that the reconciliation funding would affect how Republicans approach next year’s reauthorization. “There will be a balance, and I’m hopeful we’ll advance even more so some of these key programs,” he said.
The programs’ overwhelming popularity among farmers could also help bring Republicans on board. Lilliston pointed out that less than a third of applications for conservation programs are now granted, and the Democrats’ money could allow more farmers to participate.
“The need for these conservation programs is clearly demonstrated by the sheer amount of demand for them, even if we didn’t have a climate crisis to address,” said Jesse Womack, a conservation policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
The reconciliation bill’s funding is intended to bolster the standard amounts provided in the farm bill for conservation programs, said Adam Carpenter, energy and environmental policy manager at the American Water Works Association.
“There’s a lot of the conservation programs that benefit the climate already, but they’re not necessarily measured that way,” Carpenter said, adding that the reconciliation bill “would do a lot more of it.”
The 2018 farm bill (Public Law 115-334) signed by President Donald Trump was projected to spend $60 billion on conservation over a 10-year period, or $6 billion per year — though those programs also encompassed rivers, wetlands, and other areas, rather than specifically being directed toward farmers.
The conservation section in that bill didn’t mention climate-smart agriculture.
Womack said the climate agriculture funding in the reconciliation bill gives him hope for further conservation victories in 2023.
“We just haven’t seen a reinvestment in conservation of this size in a recent farm bill,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Sheehey in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org