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A call for climate-focused agriculture policy

REUTERS/Jim Young
The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to suppress climate change research, weaken key research institutions by moving them out of Washington, and scrub mentions of climate change from government websites and documents. Despite this denial, climate science is advancing. Agriculture is one of the hardest hit sectors, yet U.S. farm policy is largely devoid of climate considerations, and most climate change policy proposals insufficiently address agriculture.

In response to this challenge, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy is a member, released a policy position paper that overviews the latest science on climate change and agriculture and includes federal policy recommendations to advance climate action that will help farmers meet the challenge and be part of the solution.

Agriculture’s challenges

The policy position paper synthesizes the latest science on how climate change impacts farmers, how agriculture contributes to climate change, and how farmers and rural communities can contribute to the solution. Agriculture will be challenged by increased average temperatures, alterations in rainfall patterns, more frequent occurrences of weather extremes, and altered patterns of pest pressure. Increasing volatility will destabilize crop yields, contribute to livestock stress, and heighten economic uncertainty for farmers already facing the most challenging farm economy since the 1980s.


We’ve seen these effects already; in Minnesota, the snowiest February on record paired with extreme flooding led to the latest planting to date. Now, farmers are trying to harvest as frost and snow have already hit and struggling to get crops out of the field.

“Climate change is now our shared reality, and the adverse effects are adding new challenges to farms like mine every year,” said Tom Nuessmeier, a Minnesota livestock and crop farmer and organizer with the Land Stewardship Project. “In order to not just adapt, but to play a positive role in combating climate change, we need to develop new farming practices and systems that store more carbon in the soil.”

Nitrous oxide and methane

While agriculture is a relatively minor emitter of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is released through fertilizer application and other practices that increase nitrogen availability in the soil, and methane is a byproduct of the increasing use of liquid manure storage lagoons found on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Agriculture also indirectly contributes to climate change when carbon stored in the soil is released as land is converted from forests, native prairie, and other grasslands to annual crop production with tillage and chemical inputs.

Tara Ritter
Tara Ritter
Achieving an agricultural system that is both adapting to and mitigating climate change requires focusing on systems of practices and understanding farms as holistic operations. While individual practices such as cover cropping or no-till can accrue carbon in the soil, integrated systems of practices based on agroecology have the greatest potential to mitigate GHG emissions and create a productive, resilient agriculture system.

Although the science is clear, farmers’ management decisions are based on many complicated factors. Habits are deeply personal and often rooted in family tradition. Corporate consolidation has constrained farmers to certain seed varieties, chemicals, animal genetics, and management practices to meet requirements of what the industry is selling and buying. And the U.S. agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, said in October that “in America the big get bigger and the small go out.” This sentiment of “get big or get out” is built into current farm policy and has left many farmers struggling. This is where reformed policy can – and must – support farmers in implementing scientifically supported practices that help with adaptation and mitigation of climate change.

A blueprint for policy action

The policy position paper will be delivered to Congress as a blueprint for policy action and a challenge to the administration’s false narrative that farmers neither want nor need strong climate action. The findings of the paper will also be used to inform recommendations to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which undertook its first hearing on climate change and agriculture this fall.

NSAC is clear in its support for an immediate transition to a resilient agriculture system based on sustainable and organic practices. We need agriculture policy solutions that are scientifically grounded and support the viability and diversity of farmers, ranchers, and rural communities by building resilience, soil health, economic justice, and profitability.

Tara Ritter is a senior program associate for climate and rural communities at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She does research and advocacy on climate and agriculture policy, including work on the farm bill, conservation practices and carbon markets. Ritter holds a B.A. in environmental studies from St. Olaf College and a M.S. in environment and natural resources from The Ohio State University.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/20/2019 - 08:53 am.

    Kill off ethanol. Well, kill off ethanol mandates and subsidies and it will die on its own. Its a useless product that does great harm to the environment.

    • Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 11/20/2019 - 08:11 pm.

      Ethanol no longer receives a subsidy. Also, it is only mandated for use as an oxygenate in gasoline because the previous oxygenate, MTBE, was found to be poisoning groundwater.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/21/2019 - 10:56 am.

        Ethanol is far more damaging to groundwater than MTBE (which is still widely used) and while the direct federal subsidies ended, there are still tax breaks and indirect subsidies in place. And the mandates, of course, remain.

        Ethanol is nothing more than a welfare program. It accomplishes nothing of use, wastes money, and damages the environment.

        • Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 11/21/2019 - 12:02 pm.

          Pat, if you’ve ever sipped on an adult beverage, you have been DRINKING ethanol! It is also known as alcohol. Whether that is good for you or anybody is debatable, but it cannot be said that ethanol is more damaging to groundwater than MTBE. With utmost respect, I believe you don’t have any idea of what you are talking about.

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/20/2019 - 10:49 am.

    Yes! And I would add:

    1. Start taxing pollution and soil loss.

    2. Mandate parity of income between farmers and the buyer middlemen and “food producers”.

    3. Tax consolidation, biggness and Monopoly (and get guys like Sonny Perdue out of decision making).

    4. Eliminate rentier/absent land ownership of farm land, ie private equity, foreign investment.

    5. Open up land access to many more people, to ring cities and towns with small family farms.

    • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 11/20/2019 - 12:13 pm.

      How about a new Homestead Act?

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 07:53 am.

        Something like that. Currently, ag land prices have been perverted by corporate, private equity and even foreign investment, raising the cost of land anywhere close to markets well beyond what a young family can afford to start farming. That has contributed to the destruction of local community economics, the ruination of the land and waters, and even epidemics of drug abuse and suicide. A lack of land access is bad for democracy too.

    • Submitted by Greg Smith on 11/20/2019 - 07:56 pm.

      How would you propose to.stop absent landlords? when Widow Smith moves.to.town and rents land out for income, you propse.to.strip.her of her assets she spent a lifetime earnjng?

      • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 10:34 am.

        Widow Smith is not an absent landlord if she is living in the community. If she is renting the land out to the guy who now controls 20,000 acres, I would say she is part of the problem.

        One of the tools to change this is taxes. Why do we tax labor and employment so much, but absent-landord/rentier/make my money work for me income so little? We give fat tax breaks to Amazon, but tax into oblivion small business. Widow Smith could get a fat tax break by renting to a family to farm responsibly, not polluting and storing carbon in the soil.

        Land seizure of widow Smith is a big money scare tactic to keep the status quo and silence any discussion about options.

        • Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 11/21/2019 - 12:08 pm.

          I don’t agree with everything you say here and above, William, but you are right that discussion is stymied by status quo thinking and I believe it wouldn’t hurt to entertain other options.

          • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 03:07 pm.

            Democracy is a wide ranging and open discussion. Where you agree and disagree, have at it. Ag is one place where there has absolutely not been an open conversation about alternatives. The Cargills and the Bayers of the world and their supporters will not allow it.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/20/2019 - 12:58 pm.

    Good luck with that when the farm “savior” is a climate change denier who thinks his hair spray can’t possibly be a green house gas because he never sprays it outside. Sure intelligent rational reality based policies would be great… in a universe such considerations are taken seriously by the people who need them.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 07:56 am.

      Well, Trump may well be the monster you say, but I do not hear anyone in Dem leadership offering anything but the status quo in agriculture.

  4. Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 11/20/2019 - 08:21 pm.

    Good article, Tara. I think there should be more focus on helping farmers mitigate the effects of a changing climate in the farm bill which would probably require full funding and expansion of NRCS programs as well as either a positive or negative incentive for us farmers to practice better soil health techniques. There are a lot of things that could be done differently, but it is a scary thing to look change in the face. Thanks for the article.

    • Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 11/21/2019 - 03:10 pm.

      I think the easiest and perhaps most effective mitigator would be a mandate/incentive for cover crops/storing carbon. Tax non-compliance.

      • Submitted by Greg Fynboh on 11/21/2019 - 08:50 pm.

        I wouldn’t be terribly opposed to something like you suggest, but I have a bunch of friends and peers that would come unglued at the mention of an “environmental” mandate. I believe their (and my) main reason for opposition is the fear (and possible expense) of farming differently…And taxes. Once you get a nice slick operation humming along you want to keep it going that same way pretty much forever. I think we can agree that nothing on earth lasts the same way forever. Good and decent (competent and ethical) people making good and decent policy is all we can hope for. Thanks for the discussion!

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/26/2019 - 08:42 am.

          ” I have a bunch of friends and peers that would come unglued at the mention of an “environmental” mandate. I believe their (and my) main reason for opposition is the fear (and possible expense) of farming differently…And taxes.”

          Well, when these people start coming “unglued” by the reality of trade wars, flooded feilds, bankruptcies, and rural poverty, we’ll be able to have a coherent conversation. You would think farmers of all people would understand the importance of having a climate they can grow their crops in, but alas their priorities clearly lie elsewhere.

          When the most heavily subsidized people in the State, who get $2-$3 back for every 1$ they put into the tax steam, decide that taxes are more important than their flooded fields, what can you do?

  5. Submitted by John Evans on 11/21/2019 - 05:19 pm.

    Any change to federal ag policy that would have much impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions the would have to include measures that strongly discourage beef production and no longer encourage dairy production.

    This will decrease demand for corn and soybeans because a pound of beef requires a whole lot more feed than a pound of any other meat. That would present a challenge and a difficult adjustment for Minnesota’s agricultural economy.

    (Yeah, I know, it’s politically impossible.)

  6. Submitted by richard owens on 11/27/2019 - 12:14 pm.

    The World’s Most Polluting Industries
    Lead Smelting.
    Tanneries. …
    Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining. …
    Industrial Dumpsites. …
    Industrial Estates. …
    Chemical Manufacturing. …
    Product Manufacturing. …
    Dye Industry. Dyes are used for adding color to numerous products like paints, plastics, paper, textiles, etc. …

    oh ya, and farming?

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