Thursday, September 29, 2022

Within the Inflation Reduction Act: $20 Billion to Help Fix Our Farms

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The greatest threat to the environment is not hunting or suburban sprawl or invasive species. It’s farming.

Farms Coverage about 40 percent of the land, and they have replaced countless ecosystems with vast fields of soybeans, corn and livestock. Agriculture is also good for about 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.

The Inflation Reduction Act could mitigate some of those effects.

In addition to more notable investments in clean energy and healthcare, the bill — which President Biden will sign this week — includes nearly $20 billion to make farmland more environmentally friendly. The funds are intended in part to help farmers create more habitat for pollinators such as bees, store more carbon in the soil and make farms more resilient to extreme weather.

Farmers at work in a strawberry field near Ventura, California, during an August drought.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Financing for farms is only a fraction of the $437 billion bill — and it only goes into existing government programs — but it’s still a big deal, experts say. “$20 billion is still a major investment, the largest since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists research group, wrote in a recent publication. blog post. “It’s $20 billion more than we had two weeks ago,” she wrote.

And this investment is especially important today. Climate change threatens crops as some droughts and flash floods become more frequent and severe. Many of the programs funded by the IRA not only focus on carbon emissions, but can also help make our food system more resilient. Ultimately, we all benefit from that.

What the bill means for farmers

The bulk of the money — about $8.5 billion — will go to a U.S. Department of Agriculture program called the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. It pays for projects that restore the ecosystem or reduce emissions on farmland.

Farmers often use the money to buy and plant ground covers. These are plants, such as clover, radish or rye, that are rooted in fields that might otherwise lie fallow to improve soil health and prevent erosion. The idea is that the ground is always “covered” with something.

Ground covers also have a range of other superpowers, said Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri. For example, during a drought, they can retain moisture in the soil; during a flood, they help the water penetrate the ground more easily.

These plants also provide habitat for important critters above and below ground, such as spiders, beetles and fungi — many of which provide services of their own, such as pest control. In general, more plants means more animals.

On the left is a field with grain rye, a cover crop, and on the right is a field with no cover crop. “The soil on the left with ground covers will be healthier and more resilient to extreme weather events such as drought or excessive rainfall,” said Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri.
Thanks to Rob Myers

Although only one small fraction of farms currently use ground covers, Myers said, programs like EQIP are making the practice more common. Planting them can be costly, and they take about three years to start bearing fruit (such as by reducing the amount of fertilizer a farmer has to buy), he said. That’s why public investment is so important, he said.

3 other major programs the account funds

The IRA will also funnel more than $3 billion into another USDA initiative known as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Like EQIP, CSP pays farmers to make their land more sustainable, but it typically provides funding over a longer period of time and for a wider range of conservation-related projects, said Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator at a nonprofit called the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

What does that actually look like? Through CSP, a farmer can transform an industrial farm, with rows and rows of the same crop, into something akin to a more natural landscape, Day said. Such a farm can have a handful of different crops, including fruit trees and plants that enrich the soil and require less fertilizers and pesticides. In any case, that’s a best-case scenario.

Money is up for grabs for two additional programs, both of which are worth knowing: the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and the Agricultural Easement Program.

The regional partnership program — which will receive $4.95 billion — is similar to the above, but relies on partners, such as environmental nonprofits, to make farmland more sustainable. Another $1.4 billion will go to the easement program. It ensures that farmland is not replaced by roads, cities or other developments.

Is this really good for the climate?

These programs are designed to help fight climate change as part of Biden’s broader climate agenda. And some of them almost certainly will. For example, cover crops can take carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil, as long as farmers don’t dig up the roots, Day said.

Still, it’s hard to say whether, overall, $20 billion in funding will reduce agriculture-related emissions. As cafemadrid’s Kenny Torrella states, the bill will do little to change meat and dairy production, the largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the agricultural sector.

Historically, about half of EQIP’s money has gone to livestock farms, including restricted animal feeding activities, Day said. Funding from IRA could help those farmers reduce emissions to some degree, but it will also help keep a polluting industry afloat, she said. “They are inherently support systems that are very environmentally unfriendly,” Day said.

Other provisions of the bill are also channeling money into biofuels, which some experts have criticized for fueling environmental destruction and do little to reduce emissions. Remarkable, about a third of the US corn (most of which is grown in vast, largely inanimate monocultures) goes into making ethanol.

Ultimately, reducing farmland emissions will require more fundamental changes to our food system and a major investment in plant-based meats and other lower-carbon alternatives. But in the meantime, this bill offers an opportunity to restore some farmland — to bring back certain natural features to the landscape that make it more resilient.

“The average person might think that what farmers do has nothing to do with them,” Myers said. “But it’s important because we all need a stable food supply.”

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