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Harvesting a Climate Disaster

The Farm Bill should help the planet, not just crops

Farmers went to Washington yesterday. Members of a coalition representing more than 80 agricultural organizations rallied on Capitol Hill to demand passage of a new farm bill that has been stalled in Congress.(Image: NYT/Joanna Neborsky)

The Democratic-led Senate has already passed its version of the bill; the Republican-controlled House is squabbling over a competing approach (one that sharply cuts food aid to the poor). Irate farmers want both sides to shut up and pass something that can replace the current farm bill, which expires on Sept. 30.

All of the parties, though, are focused on the wrong thing.

The farm bill is not only the centerpiece of United States food and agriculture policy, it is also a de facto climate bill. And in this respect, both the Senate and House versions of the legislation are a disaster waiting to happen.

Consider, for a moment, the summer of 2012. For an agricultural superpower like the United States, it should have set off alarm bells. The hottest July on record and the worst drought in 50 years — both driven partly by global warming, scientists say — have parched soil and withered crops across the Farm Belt. Yet America’s lawmakers aren’t even remotely addressing the issue in a piece of legislation that will affect the climate profoundly for years to come.

The proposed farm bill — Senate- or House-style, take your pick — would make American agriculture’s climate problem worse, in two ways. Not only would the bill accelerate global warming by encouraging more greenhouse gas emissions, it would make the nation’s farms more vulnerable to the impacts of those emissions.

Indeed, instead of helping farmers take common-sense measures to limit their land’s vulnerability to extreme weather, the legislation would simply spend billions more on crop insurance — sticking taxpayers with the bill. “It’s like giving a homeowner cut-rate fire insurance but not requiring fire extinguishers,” Jim Kleinschmit of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy told me in an interview.

Except in a technical aside, neither the bill passed by the Senate or by the House Committee on Agriculture even mentions climate change.

Coal and cars are blamed, but agriculture is also a major contributor to global warming: by some estimates, it accounts for roughly a third of emissions globally. The industrialized, meat-heavy food system of the United States takes a heavy toll on the atmosphere; it takes an enormous amount of fossil fuel to run farm equipment and harvest the mountains of corn that fatten livestock. And most fertilizers contain nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century.

Both of the farm bill proposals would maintain agriculture’s large climate footprint, mainly by continuing to skew subsidies toward a mere handful of commodity crops. The “big five” — wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and above all corn — have received 84 percent of subsidies since 2004, according to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group critical of the practice. Subsidies increase with output, encouraging farmers to run highly mechanized operations that plant “fence row to fence row” and apply oceans of fertilizer and pesticide, all of which boost emissions.

But industrial agriculture’s ability to produce gargantuan amounts of food also makes it exceptionally susceptible to climate change. Relying on vast monocultures — the miles and miles of cornfields one passes when driving in Iowa — captures economies of scale. But that lack of diversity invites trouble. A monoculture’s uniformity means that if temperatures spike or a new pest arrives, the damage is likely to spread throughout the entire planted area. By contrast, the diversified landscapes of organic agriculture — corn planted between, say, other vegetables and chicken pens — tend to limit damage.

Farmers can best boost resilience to climate change, scientists say, by improving their soil’s fertility and capacity to retain moisture. That means cutting back on chemical fertilizers, which kill many of the microorganisms that ventilate soil, and shifting to compost and manure fertilizers and crop rotations.

Instead, leading lobbyists for agribusiness want to retain the current production system but shift the mounting climate risks to the taxpayer. Both versions of the farm bill would expand the $11 billion crop insurance program, a move championed by the National Corn Growers Association. The Senate bill, for instance, would authorize $3.8 billion a year for additional insurance.

But neither version would require farmers to take other measures to reduce their climate vulnerability, like investing in healthier soil. In fact, the draft bills would actually make it harder for farmers to do that because the expanded crop insurance would be paid for by cutting the Conservation Stewardship Program, which helps farmers improve their land’s ecological health.

Shifting federal policy from a longstanding emphasis on industrial agriculture to more organic approaches is too large a task to complete by Sept. 30. But Congress could pass a one-year extension of the old bill and direct the Department of Agriculture to use the extra time to develop, with farmers and other stakeholders, a plan to segue to climate-smart agriculture as soon as possible. As the summer of 2012 has reminded us, this agricultural superpower has already waited too long to take climate change seriously.

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