Climate Change And The Next Farm Bill, by Allen H. Olson, Executive Director, Institute of Agricultural Law & Climate Change, December, 2015 (first in a series).
Let me start with the proposition that future farm bills must either address the very real effects of climate change on agriculture or become irrelevant. Our current farm bill does little in this arena, and, quite frankly, doesn’t perform its traditional functions well either. It is a poorly written document adopted by a Congress that has little understanding of agriculture, much less of climate change. Our next farm bill must do better. In this series of articles, I would like to address what a climate change oriented farm bill might look like.
The first farm bill was enacted by Congress in 1933 during the depths of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Declared unconstitutional, it was replaced by the Agriculture Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949. Since 1949, Congress has passed a new farm bill every five to seven years.
Farm bills have helped farmers and ranchers deal with low prices and revenues, surplus production and, alternatively, limited or no production due to drought, heat, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Over the years, farm bills have expanded to address food security, food safety, forestry, agricultural trade, research, education, rural development and a host of other matters tangentially related to agriculture.
Subsidies have been a major farm bill component. USDA has, at various times, subsidized farmers whose income has suffered from declines in commodity prices or from crop and livestock losses caused by natural disasters. Recent farm bills have decoupled certain farm subsidies from actual production, providing fixed payments to farmers and potentially avoiding WTO compliance problems. USDA has also subsidized the food costs of low income consumers through programs like Food Stamps and Women, Infants, and Children, traditionally the largest share of expenditures in modern farm bills.
The current farm bill, the Agriculture Act of 2014, was debated in Congress for well over three years. We almost didn’t get one. Many in Congress would have split the farm bill into multiple statutes, each to be argued on its own merits and enacted or defeated separately. Food stamps and other social welfare programs would have gone into one bill, farm subsidies in another, research in a third and so forth. But, at the last minute, compromises were made and a comprehensive farm bill enacted containing 12 titles.
The Agriculture Act of 2014 will expire at the end of 2018. We can expect another contentious farm bill debate starting in 2017. Again one question will be whether we end up with another comprehensive farm bill or a series of separate bills. The more important question, however, is how effective will the legislation be in addressing the effects of climate change on agricultural production and food security.
Climate change has not driven past farm bills. It received scant mention in the 2014 Farm Bill although arguably some of its programs may be relevant to the subject. This must change. The effects of climate change on agricultural production and food security will be substantial and largely negative.
Any legislation that purports to implement programs to support agriculture and food security must have climate change policy at its core. Any legislation that doesn’t will forfeit a major opportunity to address the consequences of a warming planet. Unaddressed, declines in agricultural production will cause corresponding declines in food security and increases in human suffering and national and global unrest.
What Might a Climate Change Farm Bill Look Like?
As climate change increases, farm bills will need to evolve. The following is an outline of what the first climate change farm bill might look like. The devil is always in the details, but the following would be a reasonable start. I propose a farm bill with only four substantive titles, Research and Technology Transfer, Risk Management, Carbon Sequestration and Biodiversity, and Food Distribution and Human Welfare. Each title would likely encompass multiple programs, but the titles would drive the climate change functions of each program. Coordination among the programs under each title would be essential as would strict compliance and enforcement of program requirements by the administering agencies. A fifth title has been added to cover these administrative functions.
The following is a brief summary of each proposed title and the type of programs it might include. Future articles will explore each title in more detail.
Title I – Research and Technology Transfer
Continuing research on the effects of climate change on existing crops, livestock and land use patterns will be essential as will research on new crops, livestock and farming techniques better suited to deal with changing conditions. Some of this research can be conducted directly in USDA laboratories and other research conducted through grants to universities and other non-profit organizations. This research must include technology transfer components to assure that this information gets to actual farmers in a form that they can use.
Title II – Risk Management
Crop insurance will be the principal risk management tool under this title. However, it will not be identical to our current crop insurance program. Crop insurance should be primarily yield based and will by necessity be highly subsidized by the government. Revenue policies, popular with many farmers today, are too costly and can have a market distorting effect and should be eliminated.
Crop insurance eligibility should be conditioned on compliance with Title III carbon sequestration and biodiversity requirements and upon payment limitations based on adjusted gross income. Land that suffers repeated losses will be denied future eligibility absent a showing that new technologies can render the land productive.
Crop insurance will be the primary farmer subsidy under this new farm bill. Subsidies traditional under past farm bills such as direct payments, ARC and PLC payments, and loan deficiency payments will be eliminated. Payments not tied directly to weather and climate change losses or to efforts to reduce carbon emissions would have no place in this new farm bill.
Enforcement of crop insurance requirements and prosecution of criminal fraud will be highly funded under the new farm bill.
Title III – Carbon Sequestration and Biodiversity
This title will include programs to limit the conversion of forest land into cropland and pastures and the conversion of forest land, cropland and pastures into urban uses unless such conversion can be shown to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the converted land or unless the biomass harvested from the converted land will be immediately regrown to sequester carbon released by the conversion. Violation of these conversion restrictions will render the land ineligible for crop insurance and require the forfeiture of any farm subsidies received by the farming operation.
Other programs will include payments to farmers and land owners to adopt certain carbon sequestration land uses and practices that would not normally be used in their farming operations. Growing trees instead of row crops on part of a farm would be an example. Payments would also be made to promote biodiversity on farms and ranches that might otherwise be planted fence row to fence row.
Carbon sequestration and biodiversity payments could provide a secondary subsidy to farmers under this farm bill. However, the payments would be conditioned upon the payments producing significant, demonstrable environmental benefits.
Title IV- Food Distribution and Human Welfare
Title IV would focus on getting food produced by US farmers and ranchers to those that need it. It would include traditional social welfare programs such as food stamps but would do so in a manner that also addresses the effects of climate change on food production and distribution. Nutrition programs and programs addressing food waste would also be included in this title as would programs addressing issues involving the transportation and storage of agricultural commodities.
Title V – Coordination, Administration, Compliance and Enforcement
Unfortunately, fraud is rampant in many USDA farm subsidy programs. This title should be written and funded in a way that cheaters will be severely penalized.
Climate change is real and is here to stay. Business as usual will not solve climate change problems. This should be the mantra of all those working on the next farm bill. The above outline is a start, but the hard work must begin now.