Can experimental sheep grazing techniques and raising bison for meat help propel the country’s net-zero emissions goals? The federal government thinks so.
This month, the Biden administration announced hundreds of millions of dollars in new agriculture grants, focused on climate-change projects. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is putting over $3 billion towards 141 different projects geared towards developing climate-smart commodities — agriculture products and practices that are more climate-friendly. The program, Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities, helps the administration’s goal for American agriculture to achieve net-zero emissions and cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. While the program’s price tag is questionable (it was not approved by Congress), the research and development projects that are funded are a worthwhile endeavor and could be instrumental in more sustainable agriculture practices. But top-down policies, subsidies, and bailouts can only get us so far. To make research and development projects more impactful, the federal government needs to also free up American industry to innovate.
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Many of the projects funded by the USDA program are focused on studying the effects of regenerative farming techniques, which have the potential to decrease emissions. Regenerative farming is a broadly defined set of agriculture techniques that include growing cover crops, no-till farming, pasture and crop rotation, silvopasture, and increasing plant diversity. While farmers or ranchers may not implement all the various techniques, implementing even one can go a long way towards addressing climate change and the problems that come with it, such as eroding soil, excess water use, rising temperatures, and lowering crop yields.
Using cover crops alone has the potential to sequester 60 million metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of removing almost 13 million passenger vehicles from the road. Growing cover crops also restores soil integrity, which leads to healthier crops, more effective water use, less erosion, and even higher crop yields. Research shows that implementing no-till farming methods produces similar results.
The Biden administration should get credit for directing funds to encourage research and development of a variety of agricultural techniques and agricultural innovation. It’s an appropriate use of federal dollars. However, the government also needs to allow greater freedom and flexibility in the U.S. agricultural industry. A heavy-handed government hurts, rather than helps, the agriculture market and the overall economy.
For example, the perverse incentives baked into the Endangered Species Act can encroach on farmers’ and ranchers’ private property, hindering their ability to make a living — while also failing to protect the species it is implemented for.
Another regulation that harms small farms, in particular, is the USDA organic label requirement. Qualifying for and keeping a USDA-approved organic certification can be time-consuming and burdensome for small farms that want to market their products as organic.
Instead, the government should focus on rolling back unnecessary regulations and take a hard look at policies that may be inadvertently affecting the agriculture market. American farmers and ranchers benefit from initiatives like the climate-smart commodities program and the USDA agriculture innovation agenda — they should be continued. However, many policies found in the Farm Bill, which is due to be recreated in 2023, should be discontinued or reformed, such as crop insurance, farm commodity subsidies, and restrictive nutrition requirements.
Farmers and ranchers are arguably the backbone of this country, and the federal government would do well to allow for modernization and ingenuity in the agriculture sector. Farmers and ranchers can provide a meaningful portion of the country’s — and even the world’s — food and natural resource needs while also doing so in a climate-friendly way. But the federal government needs to let them do that. Reducing unnecessary regulations and encouraging innovation through programs like the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities — when done right — are positive steps towards greater freedom and a more environmentally sustainable agriculture sector.
Quinn Townsend is a Young Voices contributor and has an M.S. in Resource Management and Economics from West Virginia University.