Widespread push for sustainability gains traction ahead of next farm bill

A push to restore rapidly degrading soil and bolster the nation’s food security is gaining traction — and it could affect how the U.S. produces food for the next half-decade and beyond.

Advocates for the effort are ramping up pressure on lawmakers who are weighing whether to use next year’s farm bill, which will dictate agricultural policy through at least 2028, to boost incentives for farming practices that regenerate soil and reduce emissions or stick with the status quo.

Family farmers, grassroots activists and well-known food companies are lobbying Congress to ensure that the bill provides funding and technical assistance to implement cover cropping, limited fertilizer use, composting, no-till farming and other sustainable practices. 

Advocates say that if Congress doesn’t take action to reverse soil erosion — the average U.S. farm loses 5.6 tons of topsoil per acre each year — yields will decrease and farmers will gradually lose viable farmland, a warning key lawmakers have taken notice of.

“If we do not listen … about the urgency of regenerative farming and dealing with the source of our food, which is our soil, we will have a food shortage in this country,” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said at a hearing on the topic earlier this month.

While it’s not a surprise Democrats are throwing their weight behind climate-conscious farm policy, advocates say many Republican lawmakers are also excited about the prospect of new farming strategies that could help bring profitability back to struggling farms.

“The biggest momentum we see is when they hear from farmers about how regenerative agriculture really minimizes input costs, increases their resilience and makes it so yields don’t have so much variance year by year,” said Finian Makepeace, policy director of advocacy group Kiss the Ground.

For many farmers, innovative new practices could help reduce their dependence on chemical fertilizers, which are in short supply amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The shortage often forces farmers to either pay exorbitant costs for fertilizer or make do with reduced yields.

Rick Clark, an Indiana farmer and co-leader of the Regenerate America coalition, told the House panel that his farm saved nearly $2 million annually and is less vulnerable to drought and floods by implementing no-till and cover cropping.

“Regenerative agriculture can be incorporated into any farming operation and be far better for your bottom line,” he said.

Still, transitioning to regenerative farming is a complicated process that can take years, highlighting the need for robust technical assistance for thousands of farms that want to make the switch, advocates say.

“Farmers know their farm best. They know their land, they know the market, but a lot of times they need help moving on to the next level, and they just can’t do it on their own,” said Cindy Clark, senior manager of regenerative agriculture policy at Ceres, a nonprofit that works with investors to make companies more sustainable.

PepsiCo, Mars, Nestlé and other major food brands are meeting with members of the Senate Agriculture Committee this week to make their own push for regenerative agriculture measures.

In order to reach their climate goals, the companies need their farm partners to reduce their emissions. And with better soil health, those farms would provide a more reliable stream of food that isn’t impacted as much by weather events or fertilizer shortages.

The coalition is pushing lawmakers to ensure that the farm bill’s crop insurance program encourages farmers to adopt cover crops and other sustainable practices.

“Improvements to federal crop insurance have been made over the years. Still, our current system continues to disincentivize farmers from adopting practices that would increase their climate resilience by improving soil health and sequestering carbon,” the companies wrote in a letter to lawmakers Tuesday.

While increased technical assistance for regenerative agriculture is gaining real momentum with lawmakers, substantial changes to lucrative crop insurance programs are seen as a bigger lift.

When Congress finalizes the farm bill next year, several soil regeneration projects could already be underway.

Earlier this month, the Agriculture Department announced it would dole out $2.8 billion for 70 farm projects aimed at improving soil quality, sequestering carbon and implementing other “climate-smart” practices. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that the department nearly tripled its original allocation due to a surge of proposals.

The Inflation Reduction Act allocated nearly $20 billion to the Agriculture Department to boost climate-smart conservation programs. Advocates aim to ensure that the farm bill’s policy will unlock those funds to boost soil regeneration and other sustainability measures.

Still, efforts to revamp the farm bill could face some challenges if Republicans take the House in November’s midterm elections, as they are widely expected to. Rep. Glenn Thompson (Pa.), the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, has expressed real interest in regenerative agriculture but is also wary of major changes to farm policy.

“As we begin the farm bill process, we cannot let the promises of organic agriculture, which are many, or climate policy to cause us to lose sight of the many other benefits our current food system provides under the broad goals of farm conservation,” Thompson said during the recent hearing.

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