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Analyst: Climate change is a rare focus in farm bill debate

Congress allocated nearly $20 billion for USDA land stewardship programs in the climate, healthcare and tax bill that was enacted in August — historic investments, said Jonathan Coppess, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, on Thursday. The funding could lead to a rare focus on climate change and the agriculture sector, though he said that was not assured.

“More than 30 years have passed without climate change making a major appearance in the farm bill; neither a title nor a program over three decades of increasing emissions and ever-more apparent consequences,” wrote Coppess at the farmdoc daily blog. The windfall funding has “generated a new wave of potential, but … the interregnum does not offer comforting answers.”
“From the view in 2022, the 1985 and 1990 farms bills can appear as a high-water mark, the point where a wave of potential broke and receded,” wrote Coppess. It was, he said, a period “when Congress took bipartisan and near-consensus steps towards addressing the climate change risks for agriculture, forestry, and the food system.”
The 1985 farm bill was the first with a conservation title. It authorized the Conservation Reserve, to idle fragile cropland, and created so-called conservation compliance, which requires farmers to forgo the conversion of wetlands and native grasslands as a condition of eligibility for crop subsidies. The Wetlands Reserve Program was created in the 1990 farm bill along with the Ag Water Quality Protection Program.

In that same period, Congress discussed global warming and took initial steps toward a federal response. In more recent years, Farm Belt opposition was key to halting climate legislation during the Obama era, and skepticism about climate change became common in rural areas.

Last week, two senior Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee said climate mitigation did not deserve priority over other land and water conservation goals, notwithstanding the $20 billion earmarked for it.
In more recent years and in subsequent legislation, Congress has expanded the reach and funding of conservation programs. The 1996 “freedom to farm” law created the cost-sharing Environmental Quality Incentive Program to reduce runoff from fields and feedlots.

The Conservation Security Program, the first USDA green payment initiative, and the Grassland Reserve were landmarks of the 2002 farm bill. The 2008 bill revamped the green payment program and renamed it the Conservation Stewardship Program. The 2014 farm bill linked conservation compliance with eligibility for discounted crop insurance premiums and was the first, when conservation outlays were forecast, to exceed crop supports.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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