Why the Farm Bill Matters for Global Warming

Britt LundgrenThis post is by Britt Lundgren, an agricultural policy specialist at Environmental Defense Fund.

You may have heard about the gridlock over the 2008 Farm Bill, which was supposed to have been signed into law already, but hasn’t yet. Versions of the bill have passed both the House and the Senate. Now the bill is "in conference" to resolve differences over new spending and offsets to pay for the bill.

It’s unclear whether the conference will produce a bill that the President will sign. The President has repeatedly threatened a veto, saying he wants more reform of our antiquated system of crop subsidies (a point on which we strongly concur – see my guest post on Grist).

Still, there is much we stand to lose if Congress and the President can’t agree on a good a new Farm Bill. The 2008 bill includes significant new funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s voluntary conservation incentives programs and renewable energy programs.

Farming affects global warming because of "biological sequestration". As plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and store the carbon in leaves, stems, roots, and soil. Plowing the soil and clearing forestland to plant crops releases CO2 back into the atmosphere where it can trap heat and cause global warming (the "greenhouse effect").

Voluntary Conservation Programs

The Farm Bill’s voluntary conservation programs encourage farmers to implement practices that sequester more carbon in the soil. For example:

  • The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Security Program provide incentives for farmers to switch to low-carbon farming practices such as conservation tillage.
  • The Conservation Reserve Program provides financial and technical assistance to farmers who take environmentally sensitive lands out of production, and restore them by planting native grasses or trees. This sequesters carbon as well as restoring wildlife habitat.

But all the conservation programs are woefully underfunded. Without additional funding from the 2008 Farm Bill, two-thirds of farmers who apply to participate will continue to be turned away.

Renewable Energy Programs

The Energy Title of the Farm Bill also contains several programs that help farmers reduce their impact on global warming.

  • The 9006 program – renamed the Rural Energy for America Program – shares the cost of conducting an energy audit on a farm or installing renewable energy technology – for example, methane biodigesters, windmills, or solar panels.
  • Another new program – called the Biomass Energy Reserve in the House bill and the Biomass Crop Transition Assistance Program in the Senate bill – fosters bioenergy technology through incentives for planting new cellulosic feedstocks.

Without these new Farm Bill provisions, most farmers who want to install a windmill or a methane biodigester, or experiment with planting crops for cellulosic biofuels, will have to do so on their own. Banks are often unwilling to provide loans for farmers to install these technologies, making it extremely difficult for farmers to do this without federal assistance.

A Mixed Bag

The 2008 Farm Bill certainly isn’t the answer climate change. Some crop subsidy programs may exacerbate global warming by encouraging farmers to bring new lands, such as native grasslands, into crop production. This destroys ecosystems and releases CO2.

But the voluntary conservation and energy programs funded by the Farm Bill are important tools for farmers wanting to reduce their impact on the climate. Also, these programs can prepare farmers to participate in the carbon market that will be created with national climate legislation.

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One Comment

  1. Posted May 5, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Good post. Don’t forget that most (90%) of the non-food stamp portions of the farm bill are NOT earth-friendly. The ethanol program is only one of many boondoggles that ag lobbyists have put in over the years.