Farm Bill 2023 priorities
As the climate changes, farmers, ranchers, and foresters are concerned about the increasing threat of physical hazards, such as drought, flooding, and wildfires.1 However, many farmers, ranchers, and foresters have been early adopters of innovative sustainable land management practices that can help mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and also increase their resilience against physical hazards. The next Farm Bill should rise to the challenge and support producers to further develop natural climate solutions. Below are the Woodwell Climate Research Center’s priorities for the next Farm Bill.
- Ensure Carbon Markets are Credible
With the increasing presence of carbon markets, we must ensure that there is oversight, standards, data for baseline monitoring, and transparency for voluntary carbon markets. Carbon markets place a value on carbon stored in agricultural and forest lands, creating a credit that can be voluntarily bought or sold. However, carbon markets must be implemented with transparent standards for monitoring, reporting, and verifying credits, which will ensure the long-term viability of carbon crediting programs.2 Currently, there are various protocols for carbon credits that utilize different approaches, making it difficult to compare credits and guarantee a net reduction in GHG emissions.3 Carbon markets will provide financial and environmental benefits, such as increasing biodiversity and reducing GHG emissions, for producers.
- Utilize the Conservation and Forestry Titles for Climate Solutions
The Conservation and Forestry Titles should encourage natural climate solutions. Many conservation programs, including the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, already incentivize some climate-smart practices. Yet, most programs are oversubscribed, so funding and enrollment should be increased to match the demand from producers. Climate-smart goals, such as reducing GHG emissions and improving soil health, should also be eligible activities under all conservation programs. These practices have many co-benefits, such as improving water retention and resilience. Likewise, the Healthy Forests Reserve Program and other incentive-based voluntary programs in the Forestry Title should increase funding and enrollment and include climate-smart practices as eligible activities.
Finally, when updating conservation programs in the age of climate change, land naturalization should be considered in addition to carbon-focused solutions. Land naturalization is key to achieving the rapid natural climate solutions that are needed. An example, as mentioned in priority two, would be increasing enrollment for land retirement and easement programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Healthy Forest Reserve Program, and Wetlands Reserve Easements.
- Increase Eligibility and Usage of Crop Insurance
While the majority of U.S. cropland is insured, only about 19% of farms hold crop insurance.4 As physical hazards increase, we must reduce barriers for small-scale farmers to purchase crop insurance. Further, crop insurance should incentivize conservation practices (such as cover cropping) rather than disincentivizing them. Specifically, all Natural Resource Conservation Service-endorsed practices should be established as “good farming practices” under the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation.5 These practices will increase the resilience of the farms and likely reduce crop yield losses.
- Increase Research Capacity
Best land management practices, especially when incorporating natural climate solutions, are complex and differ widely based on the ecosystem, climate, and type of agricultural production. While certain practices, such as no-till, work well and provide climate benefits for one farm, that might not be the case for another farm in another region. Therefore, funding should increase for USDA’s climate hubs and land-grant universities, which can assist and study regional variability for land management practices.6 This investment will discourage one-size-fit solutions, which will not work for natural climate solutions.
Greater research capacity would also support the need for better monitoring and standardization as well as building a natural lands and environmental data infrastructure, which are needed for carbon markets.
- Incorporate Safeguards for Natural Climate Solutions
Finally, throughout the next Farm Bill, five safeguards should be incorporated for natural climate solutions.7 First, natural climate solutions should be designed with full consideration of climate risks. If benefits are expected to accrue decades into the future, then the changing climate and impacts on the potential carbon storage must be taken into account. Second, because the carbon stored in high-carbon ecosystems may take decades to replace if the stock is lost, high-carbon or biodiversity value ecosystems should not be degraded. Third, a full system accounting of all effects on the carbon cycle should be utilized when evaluating natural climate solutions. Fourth, natural climate solutions should aim to generate a net enhancement to human welfare while doing no harm to impacted stakeholders. Finally, natural climate solutions should be implemented with the full engagement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to mitigate environmental injustices.