‘Local weather-smart agriculture’ debate launches on Capitol Hill
What is the Farm Bill? It is the major vehicle of federal support for agriculture — an enormous, bipartisan bill that is typically passed every five years. The last package, enacted in 2018, authorized $867 billion in related funding.
One potential flash point this year: The $19.5 billion in funding for “climate-smart agriculture” guaranteed under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed last summer by congressional Democrats.
Climate-smart agriculture refers to farming practices that either trap or reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, or that address potential damages from climate change, according to the USDA.
Why it matters: The IRA directs billions into the federal agriculture programs that pay for conservation initiatives across millions of acres of farmland, according to the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
- That includes $8.25 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which pays for farmers to carry out specific conservation programs.
- It also includes $3.25 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program to help pay for farmers with established conservation practices — generally funded under EQIP — to keep those up.
Republicans can’t unilaterally cut money approved by the legislation, but can help establish certain rules around how it is spent.
GOP takes interest: While the Inflation Reduction Act passed entirely without GOP support, Republican members want to make sure climate funds would be available to their constituents — even for conservation projects with no clear carbon-reduction component.
- Prioritizing climate benefits runs the risk of “neglecting some important resource concerns regarding nutrient and water management,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) told witnesses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
- “Will producers who are unable to implement a climate or carbon sequestration project still have access to both the Farm Bill and [Inflation Reduction Act] dollars available through conservation programs?” Boozman asked.
Other Republicans, like Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, emphasized the need for “flexibility” in federal conservation programs.
What the administration says: Chief Terry Crosby of the National Resources Conservation Service — part of the USDA — said that climate and water conservation aren’t at odds.
“The same practices we’re talking about, that we’ve been applying for a lot of years, also provide those benefits for climate,” Crosby said.
Big fight over new money: There is at least one important difference between old and new conservation funding: how much of it has to be spent on livestock.
- The EQIP program is generally required to spend at least 50 percent of its budget on livestock-related practices, which generally means manure management systems for feedlots.
- The $8.45 billion in new federal funds for the program waive that requirement — putting a huge pool of funding up for grabs.
Will it bear fruit? The shadow of past failure hangs over this year’s Farm Bill — in 2012, unable to reach consensus, Congress had to settle for a nine-month extension as part of a fiscal cliff deal.
- Farmers are anxious for “a bipartisan bill, which is so crucial,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) said Tuesday.
- “I’m not interested in laying this over for another year or two,” she added.
Debt fight: Lawmakers are starting work on this enormous legislation amid a broader ongoing fight on Capitol Hill over the nation’s debt ceiling, which could risk pushing the bill on the back burner.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.), a House Agriculture Committee member, also raised questions about support for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, in an interview with northern California television station KRCR.
With funding for nutrition-related programs accounting for 80 percent of the Farm Bill, “we want to be sure that … we have oversight and efficiency with that,” LaMalfa said.
SNAP questions: Pandemic-era boosts to SNAP expired Wednesday — something experts warned could lead to millions going hungry or being driven deeper into poverty, The Hill reported.