Content ID

319602

‘Build back better’ would pay farmers to plant cover crops

House Democrats, acting in concert with President Biden, proposed a $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate change bill on Thursday that would combat global warming by paying farmers up to $25 an acre to grow cover crops on their land during fallow seasons. The bill also would help low-income families buy food for their children during the summer and make nearly 9 million students in high-poverty areas eligible for free school meals.

The package includes $22.3 billion in additional funding for four USDA land stewardship programs, with an emphasis on building soil carbon, reducing nitrogen loss, and limiting or capturing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a summary of the legislation.

Also in the bill was $960 million in grants for equipment to dispense biofuels, a four-year extension of the biodiesel tax credit, and a new tax credit for developing sustainable aviation fuel. “Biofuels can, and should, be part of our fight against climate change,” said Rep. Cindy Axne, Democrat of Iowa. Democrats also proposed $2 billion for agricultural research and facilities and $10 billion to reduce wildfire risk “within the wildland-urban interface.”

While the spending increases for child nutrition and land stewardship were not as large and would not last as long as initially proposed, they would be far-reaching. For example, the Summer EBT program, which would provide $65 per month, per child, would end in September 2024, and the expansion of the Community Eligibility Provision, allowing schools to serve meals for free to all students, would sunset on Oct. 1, 2026.

“In most cases, the new investments in the bill would not be permanent policies, and to have a lasting impact, policymakers would need to extend them in the future,” said Sharon Parrot, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. Still, she said, it “is a historic step forward that would broaden opportunity, reduce poverty substantially — particularly among children — and narrow the glaring racial disparities that continue to plague the nation due to generations of racism and other forms of discrimination.”

The White House said the package would bring “a historic investment in coastal restoration, forest management, and soil conservation.” At its peak, the increased investment in climate-smart agriculture alone could reach roughly 130 million cropland acres per year, representing as many as 240,000 farms, it said.

Under the bill, farmers could collect cover crop payments of $25 an acre on up to 1,000 acres to address both soil health and climate change. The program could cost $5 billion, according to an early estimate. Cover crops are grown on just a sliver of cropland despite years of promotion as a way to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff. But some farmers avoid them, because they can complicate the production of cash crops and require investment in seed and equipment. Seed alone can cost $25 an acre.

“Family farmers are an essential part of the climate solution,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. New federal support would “accelerate implementation of climate-smart practices on farms and ranches,” he said.

Anti-hunger groups applauded the expansion of child nutrition programs and the extension of the Child Tax Credit. “While the alliance would have liked to see the programs funded for a longer period, we recognize the tough decisions Congress must make in order to get this spending package across the finish line,” said Eric Mitchell of the Alliance to End Hunger. “We cannot lose sight of just how historic these investments are.”

Biden met with House Democrats for an hour on Capitol Hill to appeal for their support of the bill, which aligned with a framework released by the White House early on Thursday. “No one got everything they wanted, including me, but that’s what compromise is,” said the president. Nonetheless, the package will be “truly consequential” if enacted, he said.

For a section-by-section summary of the bill or to read its text, click here.

To read President Biden’s speech on the framework, click here.

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

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