A season of change for U.S. agriculture

As the weather cools and the leaves turn orange, American agriculture is steadily going green. This summer marked a banner season of high-profile, high-impact announcements affecting agriculture and its role in solving climate change. Here are some of the biggest climate wins in the sector over the last few months.

June began with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announcing its Food System Transformation framework, a suite of efforts designed to make the food supply chain fairer and more resilient. The framework directs roughly $3 billion (from previously passed legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act) to strengthen food production, processing, distribution, and markets. Investments under the framework include roughly $1.5 billion to bolster infrastructure and workforces for food processing and supply chains; $400 million to create regional food business centers; $300 million for a new Organic Transition Initiative; $90 million to prevent food loss and waste, and $75 million for urban agriculture.

Some of these programs may not seem climate-related at first glance, but they constitute a critical step toward creating a food system in which climate-friendly operations have the tools they need to succeed. A significant portion of small-scale, young, and other historically underserved producers prioritize climate-mitigating regenerative and conservation practices, but lack access to processing facilities and markets for their products. These programs support those producers by building out localized processing and marketing capacity, helping them compete with larger agribusinesses and more easily get products to consumers.

Then, in August, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), became the largest federal investment yet in addressing climate change. It supercharges multiple existing Farm Bill conservation programs with an additional $20 billion. It bolsters the budgets for the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program through 2026 and extends authorization for these working lands programs through 2031.

Importantly, the IRA also allocates $1 billion in conservation technical assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and puts an additional $300 million toward quantifying the greenhouse gas impacts of NRCS technical assistance activities. This is a necessary step to address data gaps by measuring the climate benefits of conservation practices. The law also includes $13 billion for rural development programs (including renewable energy programs) and roughly $5 billion for forestry projects that reduce wildfire risk.

Lastly, in mid-September, USDA announced 70 recipients for the first round of funding under its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, launched in February 2022. Originally slated to invest $1 billion across two rounds of funding, USDA ultimately more than tripled its investment in climate mitigation thanks to overwhelming interest from applicants. The agency said it anticipates directing more than $3 billion to the effort after determining recipients of the final funding round later this year. The partnerships program offers a critical complement to IRA investments by focusing on commodities. The agency recognizes that one of the most important factors in driving climate-smart practices is market demand for sustainable products.

The selected projects will expand adoption of practices that reduce emissions or sequester carbon on-field and help the resulting “climate-smart commodities” reach consumers. This includes quantifying, certifying, and marketing the products’ climate benefits and supporting partnerships with private sector buyers. USDA reports the 70 projects announced this round will touch roughly 25 million acres of working land and sequester more than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent over the lives of the projects —equal to taking nearly 11 million gasoline-powered passenger vehicles off the road for a year.

Taken altogether, these actions provide producers with the financial support, technical assistance, and market access needed to reduce the agriculture sector’s contribution to climate change. Still, there’s much more to be done. Through the fall and into next year, work will begin in earnest on the 2023 Farm Bill, in which climate mitigation and resilience are sure to be central. If this summer’s trend continues, though, maybe by this time next year, we’ll be sipping on climate-smart pumpkin spice lattes.