Agricultural Landscapes Face a Climate Crisis: Innovative Farmers and Land Stewards Have Solutions

Diversity strengthens systems. A diversity of species creates a more resilient ecosystem, a diversity of crops provides a farmer with better soil health, and a diversity of employee lived experiences creates a stronger organization. Without that diversity, systems become increasing vulnerable to disaster.

When it comes to federal agricultural policy, diverse and creative thinking rarely makes it into the decision-making process. A few program crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton dominate U.S. crop acreage, and federal policymakers are most likely to hear from the industries that rely on those crops. Policies that challenge the existing framework of agricultural support face a difficult process of getting through the gauntlet of interests that don’t want to rock the boat. U.S. agricultural policy has become far too slow and incremental.

RAFI supported farmers to testify in DC in 2019. Photo Credit: RAFI

Unfortunately, with a climate crisis, untenable racial disparities, and pandemic-exacerbated food insecurity, our food and agricultural system must confront several pressing issues. Tweaking these systems will not suffice. We need bold, transformational approaches that recognize and reward greater diversity in agricultural systems.

Policy development in Washington DC is truly an art form that requires a savvy understanding of negotiation and compromise. Policy tends to shift incrementally and slowly. Unfortunately, this business-as-usual approach doesn’t get us anywhere near the needed progress on creating a climate-mitigating and climate-resilient agricultural landscape. We are in a critical time that requires fresh ideas and bold policy development. We need to hear from more of the farmers and land stewards that operate outside of the dominant agricultural systems.

RAF’s Approach

To address the lack of diverse voices and the need for innovation in agricultural policy, RAF collaborates with diverse, on-the-ground organizations around the country to infuse innovative policy ideas into federal decision-making processes. We believe that solutions to the climate crisis will emerge from creative farmers and land stewards that are experimenting with a diversity of crops and livestock to generate healthy soils, clean water, and climate-resilient, profitable food systems. RAF supports organizations that work with these farmers and land stewards to get these ideas to decision makers.

Most recently, President Biden issued the “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” that directed Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to collect input from stakeholders on how to promote climate-smart agricultural practices . To take advantage of this opportunity, RAF funded 12 organizations to submit comments by the April 29 deadline.

A Sampling of Comments to the USDA

RAF partner organizations spent an extraordinary amount of time developing thoughtful, innovative recommendations to USDA. Snippets of the ideas, as well as links to the entire documents, are provided below.

National Young Farmers Coalition

“Indigenous communities should be supported in gaining greater land sovereignty, and their traditional land management practices should be recognized as powerful tools to enhance climate resiliency.”

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HEAL Food Alliance

“…Revoking regulatory line speed waivers that have been granted to chicken, cattle, and pork slaughterhouses, and discontinuing any efforts to advance rulemaking to allow any increase in line speeds will protect working people and discourage raising animals in Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) which are the largest contributor to climate change in our agricultural system, also pollute water, erode soil, cause public health disasters.”

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Rural Coalition

“It is also imperative that USDA engage Tribal governments and groups representing BIPOC producers, including those supporting this comment, to conduct a systematic review of the barriers to equitable and adequate access to existing programs and how these can be mitigated, building on existing scholarship and direct consultation with these communities.”

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OEFFA

“Research has also shown that if the standard practices used by organic farmers to maintain and improve soils were implemented globally, it would increase soil organic carbon pools by an estimated 2 billion tons per year – the equivalent of 12% of the total annual GHG emissions, worldwide.”

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RAFI

“Faith in USDA agencies cannot be restored, and programs will not be implemented equitably, until full accountability measures are implemented transparently. For example…USDA should commission and publish a report of the past 5 years of loan applications’ time to funding, broken down by race, gender, and race/gender intersection.”

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Climate Land Leaders

“Conduct a thorough review of the crop insurance program with respect to its impact on perpetuating environmentally unsustainable practices, including increased greenhouse gas emissions and poor soil health. The taxpayers’ investment in crop insurance should not lead to poor outcomes for the climate and the environment.”

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Iowa Interfaith Power & Light

“USDA must shape their programs and efforts to directly empower farmers, ranchers, and foresters to deliver performance-based ecosystem services as a means of production and not just as an alternative land use to the production of crops and livestock.”

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Regenerative Agriculture Alliance logoRegenerative Agriculture Alliance

“The best support the USDA can provide is not within the so-called ’emerging carbon markets’, but within the ’emerging demand for food with nutritional integrity’. As it happens, the nutritional integrity of the food we produce is the result of how well the agriculture and forestry sector manage the carbon cycle. The best market for carbon is the market for regeneratively produced foods.”

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Family Farm Action Alliance

“RMA should initiate a rulemaking to require private insurers to incorporate climate change risks into the calculation of policy premiums and indemnification rates for crop losses. Without this, insurance policy premiums will increase as indemnification rates decrease. Falling short of complete financial collapse, farmers may opt out of participating in crop insurance, and some crops may become uninsurable in some parts of the U.S.”

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Institute for Agriculture and Trade PolicyInstitute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

“IATP opposes public investment in methane digesters that produce biogas or what we call “factory farm gas,” as a solution to the climate crisis. Emissions related to manure management have risen 66% since 1990 and the majority of this increase is due to the shift toward larger dairy cattle and swine CAFOs…methane digesters do not take into account the full lifecycle analysis of CAFOs (including feed-related emissions) or their other negative impacts including water pollution, air pollution, loss of independent producers and the environmental justice implications for surrounding communities”

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Land Stewardship Project logoLand Stewardship Project

“USDA should spend public money on public programs that have a track record of success, not on propping up the fossil fuel industry. Private carbon markets benefit big agribusiness and let polluters off the hook for their emissions. Agriculture offset markets already don’t work for most farmers — they don’t pay farmers fairly and they are tightly controlled by a handful of big companies that dominate the market. Smaller scale farmers, including Black and Indigenous farmers who have faced systemic discrimination at the hands of USDA, are not well served by this model. Neither is the climate. Farmers and ranchers should be invested in as stewards of the land, not as a carbon sink for big business.”

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Animal Agriculture Reform Collaborative

“USDA should think about the links between crop and livestock production so that policies are synergistic. For example, promoting pasture-fed animals reduces the use of fossil fuels in agriculture (less corn feed) and increases carbon sequestration (going from planting corn to a perennial land cover)…USDA’s framing of ‘climate-smart agriculture’ implies a narrow view that focuses only on how foods are produced and not the types of foods that are produced.”

What’s Next?

With huge policy vehicles moving forward, such as an infrastructure bill and farm bill, the next 18 months are a critical time for infusing innovation into the decisions made in Washington DC.

RAF is committed to supporting organizations that can provide tax exempt-allowable education and advocacy on key issues impacting regenerative agriculture such as climate change policy. RAF’s small grants make a difference in allowing these lean organizations to spend time writing comments.

To find out more about partnering with RAF on this effort, please reach out to Mark Muller at mark@regenerativeagriculturefoundation.org.