We need a farm bill that boosts farmers and the Earth, not Big Ag’s special interests | Opinion

Climate change is disrupting farmers’ planting schedules, and within this decade, soil loss and extreme weather could threaten the adequacy of food supplies worldwide. But the House of Representatives is considering a farm bill that would reduce American farmers’ opportunities to adopt practices that help the climate.

There is a waiting list of farmers who need support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt enlightened practices, such as planting cover crops that feed soils’ microorganisms after cash crops are harvested and reduce erosion. It’s also important that farmers shift to minimum tillage that avoids disrupting bacteria and fungi that deliver soil’s nutrients to roots of green plants, making them more resistant to disease and pests. And excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which break down the complex biological structure of rejuvenated soil, must be avoided.

Often, farmers start those practices on one corner of their farms. But they need cost-sharing grants from the USDA during the three-to-five-year transition while soils adapt to these smarter farming methods. Innovative farmers have shown that, once established, these farming methods reduce input costs and provide net incomes comparable to what they experienced under conventional farming practices that have been dominant since 1950.

The Inflation Recovery Act of 2022 provided almost $20 billion to the USDA to support adoption of those and other innovative practices. The consequent regeneration of soil provides multiple benefits. Photosynthesis by green plants removes heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air, so that the roots transmit it into the soil where it is sequestered. Also, the more porous soil holds more rainfall for use by plants throughout the growing season, with less damaging runoff from the heavier rains brought by climate change.

But the farm bill currently being proposed by the House would reallocate that funding to the general conservation fund, which remains largely committed to the usual practices that don’t help the climate.

How those Inflation Recovery Act funds are spent matters to steer agriculture back to a healthy balance with nature. The USDA has excessively promoted heavy production of corn and soybeans, resulting in low feed costs to raise livestock. The House’s insistence that 50% of conservation grants must go toward livestock activities would create further advantages for meat producers. Large livestock confinement facilities want to get even larger to qualify for grants to install methane-extraction modules, but that immediate atmospheric benefit would be overwhelmed by further growth of the corn-soybeans-meat axis that strains the Earth’s carrying capacity.

Furthermore, some states want to prohibit the sale of products from abusive animal practices, but the House bill accommodates Big Ag’s desire to prohibit these statutes.

The House’s farm bill would have USDA pay a larger share of the premiums for crop insurance, which pays farmers’ claims not only for weather damage to crops, but also for losses because of drops in market prices. It also would establish higher crop reference prices, a key factor in calculating crop subsidies, with most of the benefits going to the largest farmers. These changes would further incentivize large farmers to continue their heavy use of soil tillage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These allocations would further serve to maintain the dominance of corn and soybeans in the agriculture industry — keeping too much marginal land under cultivation, which would sequester carbon better if kept in grasslands or forest. Incentives for more corn planting in western Kansas raise concerns about increased overdraws of water from the Ogallala Aquifer.

In contrast, the Senate’s version of the farm bill would keep $20 billion of IRA funds available for adoption of climate positive, soil-regenerating practices, and provide extensive new language for their administration. Some of these grants would be available to small farmers who can get their start in agriculture by raising fruits and vegetables for sale locally and regionally. This diversity of crops would not only help to regenerate the soil, but also would help to diversify peoples’ diets, making for better public health.

The Senate’s farm bill has many other helpful aspects. For example, one would correct a set of rules that make farmers ineligible for crop insurance claims if they have departed from traditional cultivation practices and have adopted methods that regenerate the soil.

Congress should adopt the Senate’s text of the farm bill, not the one that vested interests have coaxed out of the House Agriculture Committee.

Jim Turner is retired and a member of Sierra Club’s Food and Agriculture Team. He lives in Kansas City. He co-authored this with Craig Volland, retired chair of the Sierra Club, Kansas Chapter’s agriculture committee and member of its Food and Agriculture Team.