Organic Broadcaster

 

Agriculture Resilience Act intends to build resilient farming, food systems

By Cristel Zoebisch

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of our current food and farming systems to sudden disruptions. Long term, the foremost disruption we face is climate change. Farmers and ranchers work at the frontlines of climate change, as they face increasingly extreme droughts, floods, and temperatures, shifting crop yields, and changing pest and disease pressures. As stewards of our land and natural resources, they are also in a unique position to mitigate climate change and build resilience by sequestering carbon through best management practices for soil health, crop and livestock integration, and agroforestry.

Federal farm policy needs to support farmers and ranchers by equipping them with new and expanded tools and resources to mitigate the effects of climate change and transition to more biologically diverse farming systems that can better withstand disruptions.

Fortunately, far-sighted Members of Congress have joined the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), MOSES, and many other organizations to take the first steps in building more resilient food and farming systems. Earlier this year, the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA) was introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) to start the process of bringing federal policy in line with the goal of transforming American agriculture to better rebound and adapt to disruptions, including climate change.

The ARA is the first comprehensive piece of legislation introduced in Congress addressing climate change and agriculture. It contains six primary building blocks to support farmers and ranchers in addressing climate change by:
• Building soil health
• Increasing investment in agricultural research
• Supporting pasture-based livestock
• Reducing food waste
• Promoting on-farm renewable energy
• Ensuring farmland preservation and viability

This article summarizes the first three NSAC blog posts in a series covering various provisions in the ARA and will be followed by another article in the next Organic Broadcaster with more details.

ARA Goals
The first blog covered the goals section of the ARA, and it was co-authored by Jim Worstell, Coordinator of the International Resilience Project and Delta Land
& Community in Arkansas.

The ARA establishes a set of aggressive but realistic climate goals for agriculture, starting with the overarching goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture no later than 2040. Each of the ARA’s building blocks is summarized below with corresponding goals set by the legislation.

Soil Health
Healthy soils that are not susceptible to erosion are fundamental to resilient agriculture. However, intensive row-crop agriculture has caused the loss of an aver- age of 30 to 50 percent of carbon and organic matter in U.S. agricultural soils. Farmers can restore most of that lost carbon and help reverse climate change through diverse crop rotations, cover cropping, conservation tillage, and other practices to build soil health.

Thus, the ARA sets a national goal of increasing cover crop acres to at least 50 percent of cropland acres by 2040, with at least 75 percent covered by crops, cover crops, or residue year-round by 2040.

Farmland Preservation and Viability
As urbanization demands increase, agricultural land is at risk. Converting agricultural land to development negatively impacts our ability to reduce green- house gas emissions and store carbon in our soils, and it could also pose a threat to our food security in the long run.

The ARA sets the goal of eliminating the conversion of agricultural land and grassland by 2040, protecting one of our most valuable natural resources and one of the best tools we have to sequester carbon and build resilience in food and farming—our soil.

Pasture-Based Livestock
Most animals in the U.S. rarely see a pasture, living instead in large confinement facilities that generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Adaptive grazing methods improve soils while reducing methane emissions. Moving toward carefully managed grazing- based systems and re-integrating livestock with cropping systems will lead to better climate mitigation results. Methane emissions produced by confinement facilities can also be reduced through the conversion of wet manure handling and storage systems to dry storage and composting.

The ARA sets goals to establish advanced grazing management on 100 percent of grazing land, reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to feeding of ruminants by at least 50 percent, increase crop-livestock integration by at least 100 percent over 2017 levels, and convert at least two-thirds of wet manure handling and storage to alternative management by 2040.

On-Farm Renewable Energy
Another way to increase resilience in agriculture is to reduce reliance on non-renewable energy while increasing energy efficiency and generating on-farm renewable energy. Farms can reduce costs by increasing efficiency and create new income streams by using the sun and wind to generate energy. The ARA pro- poses tripling the level of on-farm renewable energy production and installing and managing on-farm renewable energy infrastructure in a way that does not adversely impact farmland, natural resources, or food production.

Food Waste
Food waste has long been ubiquitous in our food system. The ARA provisions, such as making composting a conservation practice eligible for support under federal conservation programs, creating a grant program to support large-scale food-waste-to-energy projects, and supporting schools to reduce food waste, create a forward path to reducing food waste across our food supply chain by at least 75 percent by 2040.

Agricultural Research
None of the above goals can be reached without significantly expanding investment in research on climate change adaptation and mitigation—the ARA building blocks—and related topics to accelerate progress toward net-zero emissions by 2040.

Federal funding for food and agriculture research has stagnated for decades, hindering our ability to innovate in ways that improve farm viability, rural vitality, public health, and food security. The ARA sets a goal to quadruple total federal funding for food and agriculture research and extension by 2040.

Carbon Markets and Ecosystem Services
The second blog post focused on provisions on ecosystem service markets and was co-authored by Tara Ritter, Senior Program Associate at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy. Carbon markets have become a popular recommendation for climate policy proposals, but many questions remain regarding measurements, payment levels, beneficiaries, and permanence.

It is essential to fully understand the implications of carbon and ecosystem service markets before supporting them through direct public benefits. The ARA does not include a direct proposal to sanction or provide public subsidies for such markets. Instead, it directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to put in place the infrastructure that could serve as the basis for paying farmers for ecosystem services, including carbon storage, via public programs or private initiatives.

By implementing conservation practices on their land, farmers and ranchers provide ecosystem services such as clean water, improved air quality, and carbon sequestration. Ecosystem service markets aim to pay those carrying out ecosystem services to generate “credits,” which can then be sold to buyers (individuals or companies) interested in reducing their environmental footprint. Carbon markets and water-quality trading programs are common types of ecosystem service markets operating currently.

The ARA would set up the infrastructure for farmers and ranchers to engage in ecosystem service programs or markets by:
• Establishing a Soil Health and Greenhouse Gas Federal Advisory Committee
• Directing the Secretary of Agriculture to evaluate and issue guidance on existing outcomes-based measurement systems of farm-level greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration
• Creating a nationwide soil health and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions inventory
• Establishing criteria for payments for ecosystem services that promote soil carbon sequestration or reduce greenhouse gas emissions

The ARA approaches ecosystem service markets with caution due to the many unknowns. Carbon markets to-date have not resulted in overall green- house gas emissions reductions and may not be the best option to incentivize farmers to implement climate-friendly practices.

Soil carbon storage is impermanent—any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or through severe weather events. Additionally, although soil carbon measurement is advancing, the tools required to measure soil carbon to the degree of accuracy needed to issue reliable offsets do not currently exist.

Furthermore, offset projects designed to meet the needs of carbon markets tend to work best for large-scale farms that have enough land to implement practices that would generate a profit from accruing carbon credits. Therefore, investment in carbon markets could contribute to further consolidation of agricultural land.

Some of the biggest backers of carbon markets are agribusiness companies and other major corporations hoping to purchase carbon credits as a way to sidestep reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. Without the ability to guarantee accurate measurements and permanency of soil carbon storage, offsets can allow companies to greenwash their operations without net carbon reductions.

Our country’s farmland has the capacity to store immense amounts of carbon, but more clarity is needed on which farming techniques sequester carbon, how much carbon they sequester, and whether such practices can be carried out over long enough periods of time to provide net climate benefits.

The ARA directs USDA to further research ecosystem service markets and put infrastructure in place to facilitate farmers’ participation in public programs or private markets. Without the infrastructure and clear standards, we risk overestimating carbon farming’s contribution to our efforts in combating climate change. Without appropriate protections and over- sight, farmers and ranchers may not be the ultimate beneficiaries of ecosystem service markets.

Alternative Manure Management
The third blog in the series focused on alternative manure management. It was co-authored by Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network.

Managing and storing manure is a critical issue for any livestock system. Roughly half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. comes from manure management and enteric fermentation (the belches from livestock). The ARA looks to reduce potent methane emissions in livestock operations through a new program that incentivizes the transition from current wet manure handling and its significant environmental footprint to more climate-friendly alternatives.

Based on California’s Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP), the ARA would create a federal program to support dry manure management and pasture-based strategies to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maximize environmental benefits. Examples of eligible practices in the new program include converting from flush to scrape systems, solid separation technologies, open solar drying or composting of manure onsite, conversion of dairy and livestock operations to pasture-based management, and compost-bedded-pack barns. Moving away from storing manure in wet, anaerobic conditions to dry handling and storage reduces methane emissions, runoff, and other volatile organic compounds.

The program would provide 90 percent cost share (including up to 50 percent in advance for equipment and materials), totaling up to $750,000 in any 5-year period. The bill would also provide an option for cluster applications for centralized composting facilities, as well as mandatory funding of $1 billion a year for the program beginning in fiscal year 2021.

The California version of AMMP has become a very popular program among the state’s dairy and livestock producers, where demand for the program continues to exceed state funding levels. Since 2017, the program has funded over 100 projects, totaling $63 million. Among the most popular practices are installing solids separation and converting to compost- bedded-pack barns. Two-thirds of AMMP program recipients are now composting their manure.

What Comes Next
The ARA is a first step toward aligning policy with a transformation of our food system to make it less susceptible to disturbances, whether from a virus, climate change, or other disruptions. It sets a path forward for agriculture to thrive and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

There are multiple benefits of a climate-friendly agricultural system, including healthier soils, clean water, wildlife habitat, and farm resilience to drought and flooding. Research shows that integrated systems of practices based on sound agroecological principles have the greatest potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, sequester and stabilize soil carbon, and achieve a resilient agricultural system.

Policy solutions need to acknowledge the critical role of agriculture in addressing climate change and empower farmers to implement practices that sequester carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and provide environmental benefits—helping to build resilience into our food and farming systems.

Cristel Zoebisch is the Climate Policy Associate at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in partnership with the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Both organizations advocate for federal policy that advances sustainable and organic agriculture.

From the July| August 2020 Issue

 

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