The 2018 Farm Bill is surprisingly climate-conscious.

Posted on January 31, 2019 by Peter Lehner

Roughly every five years, Congress revises and renews the Farm Bill to fund our nation’s food security, nutrition, and farm conservation programs. The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed with large bipartisan majorities in both chambers, is surprisingly climate-conscious. Its successes will serve as a foundation upon which future more aggressive climate-smart farm policy can be built.

The Farm Bill’s climate change benefits stem from a number of provisions that incentivize more climate-friendly practices. For example, the Farm Bill’s federal crop insurance program will now allow — rather than discourage — greater use of cover crops, a practice that has well-proven climate and water quality benefits. This program, which is now the primary federal subsidy to industrial farming, has often inhibited the use of climate-friendly practices such as cover crops and longer crop rotations, while at the same time encouraging planting on marginal lands, which are better suited as habitat for wildlife, buffers for streams, and carbon sinks. The 2018 law takes steps to end these perverse incentives.

The Conservation title of the bill contains a number of programs that will help curb climate change. This title continues to provide about $6 billion annually to the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program, all of which saw modest improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill. The changes to EQIP, which generally provides a 75 percent cost-share for installation of approved conservation measures, best illustrate how these traditional programs can pay climate and environmental dividends, with the added twist of garnering the support of fiscal conservatives.

EQIP data from USDA indicated that only 14 percent of EQIP funding went to conservation practices identified as producing the most environmental benefits. To turn the tide, the new law allows states to identify 10 highly effective conservation practices to be eligible for a greater financial incentive. Since climate change induced farm losses harm both the farmer and the taxpayer -- for example, climate-driven natural disasters in 2012 incurred $17.3 billion in crop insurance payments – shifting to more efficient practices is a sound fiscal move as well. 

The Bill also increases funding for organic farming and for a range of practices that help store carbon in the soil and emit fewer greenhouse gases. It also lowers the set-aside for EQIP funds for livestock operators from 60% to 50%, which is critical since livestock operations are responsible for about 80 percent of agriculture's climate change impact.   

CRP pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production for 10 to 15 years.  Because producers often bring their CRP acres back into production when the contract expires, releasing any carbon stored in the soil during the off years, the benefits are often only temporary.  The bill supports climate-friendly practices like riparian buffer and prairie strips and authorizes 30-year contracts on a pilot basis.  The law also provides a minimum number of acres to be enrolled in the program that targets the most environmentally sensitive lands and pays producers to establish tree and grass buffers along streams.  These water quality provisions both have a climate impact and create a precedent for more climate-change-focused amendments in the future.

Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill increases Conservation Stewardship Program payment levels for cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, and management-intensive rotational grazing – all of which reduce water pollution, help slow climate change, and help producers weather climate change.  It also establishes a soil health demonstration program, funded at $15 million, setting a good precedent for larger future action by the federal government and states.

The same provisions that fight climate change, will also encourage practices that protect the drinking water of millions. Industrial-scale agriculture — the large chemical-dependent monocultures where the same crop is planted year after year and the production of grain-fed animals in enormous enclosed facilities — is one of the largest sources of water pollution in the country, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or the eutrophication of the Chesapeake Bay. This agricultural water pollution can render water unfit for further human use and impose significant drinking water treatment costs on thousands or millions of communities and homeowners, such as when Toledo had to shut its water supply due to algal toxins, or the nitrate contamination in thousands of drinking water wells that could cause “blue baby syndrome.”  As a result of the clear and present threat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), a lead negotiator of the final bill, was able to build bipartisan agreement to support practices that could reduce this pollution.

As a climate bonus, the 2018 Farm Bill also takes some steps to help reduce food waste, most of which now rots in landfills, releasing large amounts of methane.  The bill funds pilot projects in ten states to develop local composting and food waste reduction efforts and promotes the donation of agricultural commodities.  It also creates a Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison in the USDA to coordinate federal programs and clarifies liability protections for food donations, among other measures. 

This legislation comes at a critical moment, when our country must decide whether and how to deal with the dramatic warming of the planet. Two recent climate reports confirm that we must act on climate change quickly, and that the extreme weather climate scientists have been warning us about are here and will worsen in the years ahead.

Our agricultural activities are both contributors to and victims of the changing climate. At the same time that industrial agriculture releases tremendous amounts of greenhouse gases from excess fertilization, tillage, manure, and animal emissions, our farms and ranches are also particularly vulnerable to the floods, droughts, heat waves, pests, and other problems that climate change exacerbates. For example, the 2016 California drought resulted in over $600 million in economic loss; Hurricane Maria in 2017 devastated 80% of Puerto Rico’s agriculture and caused $780 million in losses; heat waves threaten both crops and farmworkers.  It’s to everyone’s benefit to help those who produce our food be ready for the changing weather. 

Moreover, farmers and ranchers are uniquely situated to help slow climate change simply by preparing for it. Sustainable farmers and ranchers around the country have repeatedly demonstrated that many farming practices can help both slow and withstand climate change. There are many practices that increase carbon stored in soil or that use natural systems to reduce chemical needs and thus lower greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, they increase the amount of water the soil can absorb and enrich the fertility of the soil, thereby helping farmers endure worsening conditions. These same practices also reduce water pollution and save farmers money.

Given the scale and scope of the climate problem we face, more needs to be done in the next Farm Bill — indeed, much sooner — to accomplish the change needed in the agricultural sector so that it can produce sufficient nutritious food in more extreme weather without making climate change and other pollution worse. This won’t be easy given that the Farm Bureau, one of strongest voices shaping US agriculture policy, repeatedly and fiercely opposes any efforts to curb climate change, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as part of Donald Trump's administration, never mentions climate change. Yet, it’s necessary.

The 2018 Farm Bill, by lifting up practices known to have multiple environmental benefits, is a promising place to start.

AND A WATERSHED RUNS THROUGH IT

Posted on January 19, 2017 by Michael M. Meloy

My roots are in central Pennsylvania near the dividing line between the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds.  The creeks follow the valleys, flowing away from each other and carrying water that will ultimately rejoin in the Chesapeake Bay.  It is a rich agricultural area with a farming legacy that goes back to the mid-1700s.  It is also ground zero for the continuing struggle to improve degraded water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, one of biological jewels of the eastern United States. 

One of my best friends is a dairy farmer.  He has faithfully carried on a family tradition reaching back over multiple generations.  He is an excellent farmer.  He finally sold the dairy herd this fall, buffeted by plunging milk prices and lack of help in shouldering the relentless grind of running a dairy operation.  The barn where I have spent hundreds of hours over the course of my life now stands empty and quiet.  The cows are gone and the milk tank is dry.  Unfortunately, this is a story that is repeating itself with remarkable regularity as the number of dairy farms continues to shrink both in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country.

For those with a single-minded focus on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, the demise of another dairy farm in Pennsylvania may be a cause for quiet celebration.  Even though Pennsylvania does not border the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River drains approximately 46 percent of the state, including some of its most productive farmland.  The Susquehanna River contributes almost half the fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay and the River are inextricably linked. 

In 2010, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay focusing on loading rates for nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.  EPA identified agriculture as a key contributor of these pollutants.  Each state within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including Pennsylvania, is attempting to figure out how to achieve the targets that EPA has set for reductions in nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.  The process is fraught with difficulties, pushing the envelope of technical feasibility, legal permissibility and political acceptability.  The process is also underscoring the limitations of the tool box under the Clean Water Act to solve truly complex and multi-dimensional water quality problems.  

If the goals that EPA has set for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay under the TMDL are to be met, a financially-sustainable agricultural sector is vital to that outcome.  Runoff of nutrients and sediment from farms may be the immediate focal point but crafting solutions that will facilitate farms being able to operate in the future is critically important to the long-term health of the Chesapeake Bay.  If farming operations are forced under, prime farmland will change use and be taken out of production.  Development of former farms and the runoff from such development carries its own challenges for water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.  Moreover, rolling back changes in land use after they have occurred is almost impossible to achieve. 

Preserving farming operations holds significance extending well beyond water quality.  In the coming decades, food production is likely to become one of the key issues that not only our country but the world will face.  Loss of farms also alters the fabric and social bonds of rural areas in many detrimental ways.  

On January 6, 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released its 2016 State of the Bay Report, a bi-annual evaluation of the health of the Chesapeake Bay.  While the Chesapeake Bay received failing grades on certain key metrics, the overall health of the Bay received a grade of C-, the highest grade that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has given since it began making such assessments more than 30 years ago.  Progress is being made – slowly and painfully but surely.  At the same time, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia have collectively lost more than 600,000 acres of farmland (about half the size of the Delaware) since 2002.  One can only hope that the twin goals of saving the Chesapeake Bay and saving agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed can harmoniously coexist.

Supreme Court Puts Clean Power Plan on Hold, but Clean Agriculture Can Move Forward

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Peter Lehner

The Supreme Court's unexplained stay of the clean power plan was "one of the most environmentally harmful judicial actions of all time," writes Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School in a recent, excellent blog. Rather than venting outrage, Gerrard quickly moves on to explain that the Clean Power Plan isn’t the only way to cut carbon pollution.

Ramping up efforts like fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and building efficiency standards, he notes, will also help reduce carbon pollution. Gerrard mentions a couple of points about agriculture, but often, this sector is overlooked when it comes to climate solutions. It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the opportunities to reduce climate pollution from our food system.

Food waste is the second largest component of most landfills. As it rots, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that 2 percent to 4 percent of all manmade climate pollution arises simply from food rotting in landfills.

Keeping food waste out of landfills can help reduce methane pollution. Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some cities have enacted laws to manage organic waste disposal in landfills. The idea is to create incentives to reduce food waste and divert it to other purposes, such as animal feed or composting. Instead of being thrown away and becoming a source of pollution, this “waste” can be put to good use. Landfill gas collection systems can be further incentivized. And the nascent effort to reduce food waste from businesses and households can be significantly ramped up.

Another major source of greenhouse gases is the over application of fertilizer. Excess nitrogen fertilizer causes two big problems. The first is water pollution. Nitrogen that isn’t taken up by crops runs off farms and enters larger waterways, where it stimulates the growth of algae and creates “dead zones” deprived of oxygen. The second, and less frequently discussed issue, is the volatilization of nitrogen into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2.  The IPCC estimates that 12 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions come from synthetic fertilizer application.  

A number of techniques can reduce these emissions while also providing a cost benefit to farmers. Farm policies could encourage practices like cover cropping, which reduces the need for fertilizer by making soils more rich and fertile. Crop rotations can do the same, yet current crop insurance programs actually discourage the use of these practices. Precision application technologies for fertilizers are getting ever better, but their uptake on farms is slow.

Manure from animals, and the "enteric emissions" from cattle (more commonly thought of as belching) are two more significant sources of climate pollution. Enteric fermentation alone may account for as much as 40 percent of all non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IPCC. Changes in diet might help with these emissions, but this is an area that needs more research.

Some of the emissions from manure can be captured if manure lagoons were covered and better managed. As it stands, these pits are only slightly regulated and are major sources of water pollution sources as well as odor nuisances. An even better practice is to raise cows on rotating pastures, where their waste can enhance soils and help store carbon. And, of course, if Americans did shift to a diet lower in red meat, as per the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, we could further reduce climate pollution from cattle.

Agriculture is one of our nation's most important economic sectors, and is especially vulnerable to the extreme weather impacts of climate change. Its product -- food -- is critical not only for our economy, but is an integral and uniquely personal part of our everyday lives. When we think about how to address climate change, it makes sense to think about food and agriculture. The food we choose to produce, and how we produce it, use it, and dispose of it, all have an impact on climate pollution—and therefore have the potential to become climate solutions. 

Time to Clean Up Our Dirty Food System

Posted on December 19, 2014 by Peter Lehner

For decades, environmental lawyers focused on cleaning up the air and water. We made tremendous progress. Today, in most of the country, our air is safer to breathe and our waters more fit for drinking and recreation than at the dawn of the environmental movement. 

But while our air and water got cleaner, our food system got dirtier during that same time period. Vast numbers of chemicals started to be used in the production and processing of food, with little thought given to the long-term impacts on human health and the environment. 

Safeguards have failed to keep pace with the introduction of new chemicals, and the powerful industries behind these products put tremendous pressure on federal agencies to limit health protections, putting our health and our environment at risk. 

Here are three ways to start cleaning up our dirty food system:

1. Close the Giant Food Additive Loophole

Hundreds, if not a thousand or more, chemical food additives used in processed and packaged foods that make up the majority of the American diet are never publicly revealed, much less reviewed for safety by the FDA. A recent report from NRDC explored this loophole in food safety law, known as GRAS, or “generally recognized as safe,” which allows chemical manufacturers to decide for themselves if their product is safe. In many cases, the FDA isn’t even notified when chemical additives enter our food supply.

Some additives which manufacturers claimed to be “generally recognized as safe” have been linked to fetal leukemia, testicular degeneration, and other adverse effects in human cell or animal tests. NRDC found these additives listed as ingredients in at least 20 food products.

The FDA can and should move now to end the conflict of interest in this system; and when the agency does review a manufacturer’s safety claims, their concerns should be made available to the public. Ultimately, Congress needs to close the GRAS loophole and reform outdated food safety law. 

2. Stop Risky Herbicide Used on Corn and Soy

The EPA recently approved the herbicide Enlist Duo, which is toxic to many plants, but not to a new strain of genetically modified corn and soy. Enlist Duo is likely to become the replacement for the weed-killer popularly known as Roundup, which became one of the most widely used herbicides in the nation after Monsanto developed genetically modified corn engineered to resist it. According to Monsanto, Roundup and its family of glyphosate-based herbicides are registered for use in more than 130 countries.   

But after 20 years of heavy use, Roundup is no longer effective against certain weeds, which have evolved a resistance to it.  The industry’s solution is to escalate: develop a new strain of GMO crops that can withstand a new, more potent herbicide.  

Enlist Duo is a combination of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, and another herbicide, 2,4-D. The EPA signed off on Enlist Duo despite ample evidence of the harm caused by 2,4-D, and without taking into account the last two decades of research on glyphosate. 

In recent years, glyphosate has emerged as a major contributor to the alarming decline of monarch butterflies, as it has decimated milkweeds across the Midwest, the only plant on which a monarch will lay its eggs. (Milkweeds have not evolved any resistance to glyphosate.) Emerging evidence suggests glyphosate may pose a threat to human health, with possible links to kidney disease, pre-term deliveries, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, birth defects, and miscarriages. 

2,4-D has been associated with decreased fertility, higher rates of birth defects, and other signs of endocrine disruption. It’s been found in drinking water and can drift in the air over great distances, increasing the likelihood of human exposure far from the fields where it’s sprayed. 

The approval of Enlist Duo will expand both the geographic area and the length of the season during which 2,4-D would be used, potentially increasing the risk of exposure to 20 million children and women of childbearing age here in the U. S.

NRDC is suing the EPA for its approval of Enlist Duo.  

3. Stop Antibiotic Abuse in Livestock Industry

Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold in this country are for use in livestock and poultry, not for humans. And these antibiotics are largely used on animals that aren’t sick. 

To keep antibiotics effective, we need to change the way we raise animals for their meat. NRDC has been spearheading a campaign to raise awareness of antibiotic abuse in the livestock industry and pressing the FDA to take action. Recently, a number of major food companies have announced that they have or will transition away from antibiotics, including Perdue Farms, Chik-Fil-A, Panera Bread, Chipotle and others. 

These moves are encouraging and welcome but still voluntary, and not yet backed up by any increased transparency into antibiotic practices. And Foster Farms, the biggest chicken producer in the West, whose product was linked to a widespread Salmonella outbreak in 2013 and 2014, has yet to announce any changes in its antibiotics practices. 

Meanwhile, the latest FDA statistics show that antibiotic sales to the livestock industry continue to rise. Real change will come when we have truly effective safeguards—not the voluntary measures offered by the FDA, and not the similarly weak proposal recently (and commendably) vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown of California. 

Governor Brown has called stakeholders back to the table to find a more effective way for the industry to change its risky practices. It’s possible that California could lead the way forward on antibiotic stewardship. 

Is Clarification of Superfund “Common Sense” Unnecessary? The EPA doth protest too much, me thinks…

Posted on August 10, 2012 by Charles Efflandt

“Let me be clear: EPA has never designated manure as a hazardous substance nor has the agency ever designated a farm a Superfund site and has no plans to do so.” So says Mathy Stanislaus, EPA Assistant Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Economy on June 27, 2012. The subject of the hearing was a bill called the “Superfund Common Sense Act” (H.R. 2997), which seeks to clarify that livestock manure is not a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant for purposes of CERCLA response authority and EPCRA emergency reporting.

With such an unequivocal statement of agency intent, is this latest Congressional effort to ensure a “common sense” interpretation of CERCLA and EPCRA with respect to livestock waste simply an attempt by agricultural interests to create an unnecessary and unwarranted regulatory “free pass,” or a prudent effort to provide needed certainty to the regulated community?

EPA’s position appears to be that the proposed codification of Superfund “common sense” is an uncalled-for response to the concerns being voiced. Beyond his broad statement of agency interpretation and intent, Mr. Stanislaus argues that EPA’s 2008 final rule exempting animal waste at certain farms from air emissions reporting under CERCLA section 103 and EPCRA Section 304 further demonstrates that the agency is already exercising common sense in its regulation of livestock waste.

Notwithstanding these assurances, however, Mr. Stanislaus admits that this final rule is currently under EPA review to address various issues being raised by a range of stakeholders. He also references EPA’s ongoing efforts to develop emissions estimating methodologies to better quantify air releases at livestock operations, presumably for future regulatory purposes.

Needless to say, such statements offer little comfort to the bill’s sponsors and regulated community, which are similarly discomforted by other statements of Mr. Stanislaus.  For example, Mr. Stanislaus testified that the Act would prevent EPA from responding under its CERCLA authority to “damaging” releases of hazardous substances associated with manure. Also, Mr. Stanislaus voiced the agency’s concern that the bill’s “common sense” provisions would prevent EPA from using CERCLA to issue abatement orders in response to releases presenting a substantial danger to health or the environment.

Proponents of the bill state that the Act is not about whether manure should be regulated, as animal feeding and other farm operations are already adequately regulated under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and state-specific authorities. Rather, the issue is whether CERCLA’s environmental response provisions and requirements were intended to or should apply to manure management. Although recognizing that CERCLA has specifically exempted only the “normal application of fertilizer” from its definition of “release,” proponents argue that such definitional language is not dispositive of congressional intent with respect to the general characterization of manure as a CERCLA hazardous substance. They also point out that EPA has never issued guidance on what constitutes “normal application of fertilizer,” leaving that exemption and broader CERCLA issues to be resolved by the courts and agency.

Opponents argue that because constituents of manure, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, are hazardous substances, there is no legal or scientific basis to totally exempt manure from the regulatory scheme of CERCLA and EPCRA. They also challenge the notion that CERCLA authority is unnecessary or duplicative by identifying gaps in the reach of other federal environmental laws, including authority to deal with natural resource damages and the recovery of response costs.

Whatever side of the fence you may be on, it does seem inevitable that, if the legal and scientific issues being debated are not addressed by Congress, they will almost certainly be considered and resolved in some fashion by EPA, state agencies and the courts. In light of this -- and notwithstanding EPA’s protests that codification of Superfund “common sense” is unnecessary because agency common sense already prevails -- is a legislative approach to clarifying these important issues preferable to the uncertainties of future agency rule making and the inconsistencies inherent in judicial rulings?