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Why the U.S. Farm Bill Matters

Duke experts share how a key piece of legislation may affect climate change

In addition to supporting farmers, conservation and food programs, the next U.S. farm bill can play a significant role in combatting climate change, say Duke experts, who note that agriculture generates about 11% of the nation’s greenhouse gases.

Congress is expected to take up reauthorization of the farm bill sometime this year, most likely after the Sept. 30 deadline, according to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“The way that the farm bill addresses climate is through the conservation and energy titles, or programs, which represent over 10% of farm bill expenditures,” says Norbert Wilson, a professor of food, economics and community at Duke Divinity School.

“Beginning in the 1985 farm bill, the conservation title protects soil, water and other natural resources and limits the environmental impact of production on private lands,” said Wilson, who also directs the World Food Policy Center at Duke.

“The conservation title received a big boost through the Inflation Reduction Act and will invest nearly $20 billion in conservation programs and provide guard rails to support the conservation titles in future farm bills.”

Last reauthorized in 2018, the Farm Bill remains one of the most significant and comprehensive pieces of legislation affecting American agriculture and rural communities.

The legislation was originally signed into law in 1933 to provide a safety net for farmers, ensure a reliable food supply and protect against soil loss in the wake of the Dust Bowl.

Today other provisions of the farm bill include support for food assistance, programs and policies that help farmers manage risk, and agricultural research. The supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP, formally the food stamp program, is the largest component of the Farm Bill, representing 84% of the expenditures, Wilson said.

Climate change is expected to boost the frequency and duration of droughts, leading to declines in agriculture production. But Wilson said agriculture offers opportunities for carbon sequestration as a tool to help combat the problems.

Elements of academic research are also affected by the farm bill, said Duke biology professor Lucia Strader.

“Investment in research is one of the best possible returns on investment that the federal government can make. For U.S. agriculture, there’s a $20 return on investment for every dollar spent on research and development. It’s an amazing return,” she said during a briefing for congressional staff earlier this year hosted by the Duke in DC office.

“These funds allow for leveraging of state and county dollars that really allow for research and development to improve agriculture and allow for the rapid response to emerging conditions like, for example, here in North Carolina, there is emergence of new nematodes are affecting food productivity.”

Law professor Michelle Nowlin, co-director of the Environmental Law Policy Clinic at Duke, told a DC briefing audience that “it’s really impossible for us to address climate change, or more generally environmental quality in the U.S., without addressing agricultural production. Because as much as 50% of the land in the lower 48 states is presently in agricultural production.”

She added that 40% to 50% of the nation’s methane emissions, and 60% to 80% of the nation’s nitrous oxide emissions, are estimated to come from agricultural production — methane primarily from intensive feedlots, and nitrous oxide from common manure, fertilizer application and manure management methods.

“And I’d like to note that these are estimates because there is an appropriations rider that has prevented EPA from collecting and analyzing emissions data from the agricultural sector for the last 10 years or more,” Nowlin said.

“This is a vicious cycle, that contemporary agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions because agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change through drought, catastrophic storms, flooding, increased heat and humidity in many regions, and changing and unpredictable weather patterns that affect planting and harvesting.”

Nowlin added that without improvements to agricultural practices that keep pace with these weather stresses, the USDA has predicted that crop yields will decline in coming years, which in turn will strain budgets for disaster assistance.

“We believe that in the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress has the potential to counteract the harm caused by certain agricultural practices and ensure that agriculture is part of the climate solution moving forward, and it can also make farms more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

Originally published September 18, 2023. Story by Steve Hartsoe. Video by Bryan Reklis, University Communications and Marketing