Ask most Americans if they support farms and they unwaveringly say yes. With good reason, Americans enjoy the incredible bounty that American farms, and farmers, produce whenever they sit down to eat. What many Americans may not realize, however, is that agriculture is uniquely positioned to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. And the U.S. can help make that happen while delivering economic benefits to rural communities across the country. Here’s how.
Today, the agriculture sector generates an estimated 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, or roughly the same amount as emissions from trucks and airplanes combined. However, the same farms that contribute to those emissions could actually be tomorrow’s solution to the climate crisis. By turning toward more sustainable and organic farming practices, farmers and food companies can help reduce the climate impacts of agriculture and position the sector as an important part of the solution to the climate crisis.
The time to help agriculture make this shift is now. A big opportunity for doing so is the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill, a once-in-a-generation chance to make better farmland stewardship a national priority.
The bill calls for spending $27 billion to help farmers, ranchers and their partners transition millions of acres of cropland toward sustainable farming practices, resulting in a win-win-win of lower pollution, higher crop yields, and more carbon being sequestered in soils. It would be the biggest investment in agricultural conservation programs since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, reaching as many as 240,000 farms and 130 million acres of cropland per year.
Some farms, such as Cold Springs Organics, a certified organic grain and beef cattle farm in Bozeman, MT, have been moving down this path, and are finding wide-ranging benefits by doing so. Reducing tillage in the wheat fields by planting a more diversified crop rotation, including cover crops, yellow peas, alfalfa and flax – has reduced both erosion and fertilizer use since the cover crops are legumes that put nitrogen in the soil and eliminate the need for carbon intensive, purchased fertilizer. Another benefit is that through regenerative organic practices, more carbon dioxide is pulled out of the air and stored long term in the soil.
The cover crops also improve profits. While the alfalfa helps feed cattle, the yellow peas go to Annie's Homegrown, a food company that is blending them into one of its new pasta products. These kinds of collaborations between food companies and farmers are critical as we look to mainstream better land stewardship practices across the country.
Stonyfield Organic is moving in the same direction. They are now working with a dozen of their organic dairy farm suppliers to pilot measurement and tracking of carbon levels in their soils using OpenTEAM– all with the goal of increasing those levels through better farming practices. These farms, and all the farms in Stonyfield’s supply, are key to Stonyfield’s overall strategy to achieve their science-backed climate target and cut total carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. In fact, if all Stonyfield’s milk suppliers increase their soil carbon by one metric ton per acre per year, Stonyfield could achieve their entire science-based emissions target just with that. Even better, improving soil health would also make farms more resilient to extreme precipitation, and increasing the amount of nutrients in pasture and haylands would benefit the farms bottom line.
Stonyfield is not alone in these efforts. Leading food and clothing companies in the Ceres BICEP Network are similarly working with their suppliers to support farmers’ efforts to reduce GHG emissions. However, there is still much more that can be done. Global cropland has the potential to sequester as much as 570 million metric tons of carbon every year—and the U.S. is largely missing this opportunity.
The Build Back Better bill can help us change this paradigm. It would fund chronically over-subscribed voluntary conservation programs that farmers use to safeguard resources and sequester carbon in their soils and trees. Expanded programs for cover cropping and improved nutrient management, much of it by leveraging private and outside investments to support locally led conservation, are key components of this effort.
Critics of the package have focused on the cost to businesses, farmers and families. In fact, the bill would not raise taxes on farmers or small businesses, while driving significant investments to lift up these businesses, farms and local communities. There’s also the growing risk of not changing course – a scenario of declining agriculture yields as warmer temperatures and more volatile rain events become the ‘new normal.’ Stonyfield and at Cold Springs Organics are already witnessing the impact of climate change on production, and the impacts will likely only intensify in the years ahead based on current trajectories.
U.S. agriculture has long been known for cutting-edge innovation that has made it the breadbasket of the world. A new era of climate-smart agricultural innovation is urgently needed. The Build Back Better bill is exactly the kind of concrete action that we need to invest in rural communities and position the U.S. as a leader on agricultural solutions to climate change.
Britt Lundgren is director of organic and sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield Organic in Londonderry, NH, and Nathaniel Powell-Palm is a farmer and owner of Cold Springs Organics in Bozeman, MT.
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