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GREENING RED AMERICA: BREAKING DOWN BUILD BACK BETTER’S CLIMATE AG POLICY
The bill aims to transform America’s approach to climate, forestry, and agriculture.
Deconstructed
December 3 2021, 3:01 a.m.
Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images
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THE BUILD BACK BETTER ACT is one of the biggest and most complicated pieces of spending legislation in American history. If it becomes law, it will be (among other things) the biggest investment in climate mitigation ever made. So what does it actually do on the climate front? Eric Deeble from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition joins Ryan Grim to discuss the bill’s climate and agriculture provisions.
[Introductory music.]
Ryan Grim: The Build Back Better Act very well might be the most jam-packed piece of legislation ever put together by the United States Congress, so it’s hard to blame the press for struggling to find a pithy way of describing it.
For a while, it was just referred to as the “$3.5 trillion reconciliation bill” but that told you basically nothing other than that it was big.
Now it’s down to a $1.9 trillion reconciliation bill, but that’s not terribly helpful either, since that money is going to be spent over ten years. (Although, actually, most of it is spent in the first few years and so again, we’re back to not knowing much.)
The press eventually started calling it a “sweeping social safety net expansion” or a “sweeping social spending and climate bill” or something along those lines. By then, there was at least some indication of what was in it. When journalists have given up, like I did at the top of the podcast, we just call it the Build Back Better Act.
Newscaster: There’s never been anything quite like President Biden’s colossal Build Back Better Act.
Newscaster: — a vast array of proposals —
Newscaster: — sprawling social safety net bill —
Newscaster: — this huge spending plan —
Newscaster: — much bigger, sprawling bill —
Newscaster: — this massive reconciliation bill —
Newscaster: — massive Build Back Better spending plan —
Newscaster: — massive spending plan —
Newscaster: — the entire massive package, $2 trillion or so —
Newscaster: — Build Back Better, this enormous, massive package.
RG: The sheer size and scope of it is impossible to sum up quickly, and maybe that’s why it’s gotten so little attention. That might actually be a good thing for the bill’s prospects. The media tends to treat big things as bad and scary, and by ignoring it, they’ve allowed it to largely play out as a debate inside Congress and among political junkies.
And its prospects are now looking quite good. The House passed its version before Thanksgiving and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is promising to move a version through the Senate before Christmas. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the lone holdout, says he has some adjustments he wants to make to it, but seems resigned to vote for it on final passage.
The bill, as the press sometimes notes, includes something like $600 billion in climate spending, which would make it the most significant climate-focused investment any country has ever undertaken. Granted, that’s a low bar, but if we do turn things around globally, in hindsight we might be able to look back at this moment as a turning point.
As the collapse of the climate moves closer and closer to the center of our lives and the center of our politics, it’s going to be important for the media to start actually covering what the contest is actually about. Just saying that it includes $600 billion in climate money won’t cut it any more.
So today we’re going to dig deep into one aspect of the climate policy in the bill, and that’s what it does on farm policy, conservation, water policy, and rural energy production. The bill spends huge amounts of money working to transform Trump country’s approach to the climate, and it’s gotten almost no attention outside of the farming trade press.
To walk us through this, we’ll speak with Dr. Eric Deeble, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. And he’s been heavily involved in crafting the legislation.
[Musical sting.]
RG: Eric Deeble, welcome to Deconstructed.
Eric Deeble: Thank you, Ryan. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
RG: Yeah, of course. Of course. Can you give us a little background about how you wound up where you are?
ED: Sure, happy to.
Well, I am the policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which is a coalition of 130-plus organizations, farmers and farmer-serving organizations that come together to improve federal policy for food and farms.
I was, prior to this work, a Senior Policy Advisor for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic junior senator from New York, where I covered agriculture and nutrition, the arts, and space — best portfolio of any Hill staffer ever. And prior to that, I was a new graduate of veterinary school. I am a large animal veterinarian by training, which is how I come to agriculture.
RG: So as I was reading through the Build Back Better Act after it passed the House of Representatives, the agriculture title really jumped out at me as something that has gotten kind of the least amount of attention in the press that could have the most profound implications for the U.S. and for the globe. And so, where did this come from? Like, how did the coalition behind this get enough energy in order to push this all the way through? And how did it happen without anybody kind of noticing it?
ED: Well, I think it didn’t get a lot of notice because there were so many other big things that are essential for the health and welfare of all Americans: paid family leave, changes to healthcare delivery systems and drug pricing. So there were so many important parts of the Build Back Better Act that I think some of the agricultural components kind of flew under the radar. And that isn’t because they aren’t important; it’s just because they were much larger portions of the bill that were more hotly debated.
I’d say that part of the reason that the ag section came together so well was because there had been a lot of work put into it in advance to increase the amount of funding that was available for conservation programs. And this has been sort of an ongoing drive of many organizations, including NSAC, to double the funding for conservation programs within the Farm Bill — and we’ve got a Farm Bill coming in 2023. And so this momentum in this work has already been established and undertaken.
And so I think that when the Build Back Better Act was being put together, folks in Congress, led most certainly by Debbie Stabenow in the Senate, were very interested in making sure that climate change-centered agricultural investments found a home in the Build Back Better Act.
RG: How involved have Republicans been in the design of this title? Because, obviously, there’s very little hope that a single one of them will vote for it in the end. But that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily not ever involved in the crafting of it. Is this a Democratic written bill solely? Or what’s your understanding as somebody who’s worked on both the Hill and is head of this coalition of how involved Republicans are in this? And do they see climate related conservation, climate-related ag policy as kind of hostile to them, because they hate the idea of climate change? Or do they see it as a way to get more resources toward a population that they represent?
ED: It is a fascinating transition that we’re watching unfold in, in domestic agricultural policy. And I think you just touched right at the heart of it.
Because budget reconciliation is and was always going to be a priority of the administration and a Democratic-only bill, it kept a lot of the groups that you would expect to participate fully in a debate around an ag spending bill on the sidelines publicly. Privately, those folks have been talking to the drafters of the bill, and raising concerns, and asking for support for specific programs that benefit generally the type of commodity that they grow, or the type of producer that they represent. That’s not a secret. But it has not been a series of public campaigns with grassroots engagement and sort of the big hitters coming to the table in a way that you would expect to see around a Farm Bill, which is strange. It’s an unusual dynamic to have those folks not present when we’re having conversations. That said, there is a real understanding that climate change is real, farmers contribute to it, farmers should have a role in helping to fix it. And farmers should be responsible for the types of things that they do as it relates to climate, and that we should help them in order to meet the obligations that they may have in the future.
That’s a more common sentiment now than it’s ever been in the past. Five years ago, we couldn’t say climate change, or there were many folks that wouldn’t listen to you if you said climate change. You could say soil health, but you couldn’t say climate change. I think we’re past that now. I think people are willing on both sides of the aisle to admit that climate change is real. And the Democrats have for decades, but this is a new development for the Republican Party.
But even though some of the larger conventional groups that represent commodities, and producers have been on the sidelines, I think that the inclusion of the cover crop program is important in maybe lowering the barrier to participate in some of the most basic conservation program elements for those folks who’ve been on the sideline for a while, and also the fact that the existing conservation programs are agnostic about who could apply to receive funding. There’s nothing in any of the USDA programs that says you have to be small or midsize or highly diversified or doing super valuable environmentally protective farming practices. It’s available to anybody who wants to apply for a contract to get better.
And so no opportunities are closed to a producer in this bill. And there are supports to sort of help folks get more engaged in conservation. Things may change a little bit when we get to the Farm Bill. And we can talk maybe a little bit about how this funding sets up the conversation that we’re going to have in a year or two as we get closer to the Farm Bill. But I think making this money available for conservation now is important. The initial investments are really important. But there’s going to be a fight about how this money could be reallocated in the Farm Bill, and then to see who benefits.
I think members of NSAC and many of the folks who’ve worked very hard to support the drafters as they wrote this bill, and to support the administration’s implementation of it when hopefully it passes, are really interested in making sure that the money that is being made available for forestry and ag conservation programs stays there in the next Farm Bill. And that’s a fight that I think everybody is anticipating.
RG: So there are a couple different elements of this. And let’s take the forestry parts first. So on a scale of like zero to dream legislation, where does this title fit in on the forestry front of it? And what does it do?
ED: So I think an important point to mention is that budget reconciliation is a bit of a blunt instrument. Budget reconciliation, by its very nature, only allows you to add money into existing programs or using existing authorities. So I think anybody’s idea of dream legislation would be transformative policy changes, as well as funding. And reconciliation doesn’t let you do that, although it will let you spend money on things that are important. So I think it’s just important to keep that in mind as we’re having this conversation. That said —
RG: Well, before you get to that, what kind of policy changes would you have hoped to get in if you hadn’t gone through reconciliation?
ED: Right. So for conservation programs, in general, we would maybe be looking for ways to refine programs to make them work better for more diversified growers, to increase diversification, perhaps to adjust the way that crop insurance and commodity programs support greater diversification. We’d be looking for increased support for organic production systems and grass-based production systems to get animals out of CAFOs and back onto pasture, which we know are important things to do if we really want to address the climate change crisis. So those sorts of more transformational elements that you would want in a bill, or that you might want to consider in a bill, that takes a legislative change. And you can’t do that under budget reconciliation.
In the forestry title, there’s a lot of money, very much needed for habitat reconstruction, and for fuel reduction, and for not just mitigating the most proximate effects of what have been a couple of really devastating years of forest fires, but to actually help folks adapt to a changing landscape and adapt to climate change in a way that’s that’s quite significant.
There is also an element of mitigation where we know that planting trees is one of the most durable agricultural interventions that you can make that sequesters carbon, improves wildlife habitat, improves water quality, soil retention, all the good things that you’d hope to do. And this forestry title really does that. And it’s the most significant investments we’ve made in American timber and forests and forest ecosystems ever.
RG: Is there an expectation that we could actually have a reduction in forest fires as a result of this? What’s your expectation?
ED: Well, I’m not an expert. And so my prognostication is probably less relevant than some of the other folks that work in forest timberlands.
I understand it mostly from a carbon sequestration and agricultural perspective. Many farmers are also forest owners. And there is an increasing move to put more trees into farmland, either through agroecological planning systems, or silvopasture, which is putting trees into pasture land to make them more effective, not just places of carbon sequestration, but better forage quality and better for animals.
So I don’t know what the impacts will be on forest fires. But I know that there are probably some other folks out there that could give you a better answer.
RG: So how does this work? I saw the amount of money being put behind this are pretty incredible. So will farmers be paid to plant trees, to protect forests? Like what is the mechanism that we’re gonna see that actually transforms the countryside?
ED: There are a number of program elements that are going to have really significant impacts on forest owners and forested lands that are publicly accessible.
So there’s support for a Climate Conservation Corps, there’s support for emergency forest watershed reconstruction and rehabilitation — and so those funds will go directly into farmers pockets as they work to reestablish watershed spaces that can go towards things like planting of trees, riparian buffers, where you’re putting trees in along waterways in order to stabilize banks, which is obviously a real big problem after fires happen. And so there are pretty significant ways in which that money is going to directly impact places where wildfires have been, and are increasingly a problem.
That said, it’s not just about fire. There are all sorts of other elements of healthy forest ecosystems that this bill is going to help address. So just because there are places where wildfires have become increasingly severe and increasingly frequent, it doesn’t mean that some of that money will also be available in other communities, including places like the upper Midwest and the Northeast, which could benefit from additional tree planting, perhaps the clearance of hazardous undergrowth and some other elements that would be helpful for those communities as well.
RG: I saw there was, it seemed like almost $1 billion in there for trails, another couple billion dollars for vegetation management, billions more generally for forests and reforestation, something like half a billion encouraging owners of forest to collect more, more carbon. And I got to this one part where like, what is this? There’s $14 billion for wildland urban interface, forestry management around the wildland urban interface. What is the wildland urban interface? Is that kind of where the woods meets the city?
ED: That’s precisely it. And again, I am no expert in forestry concerns. But one of the greatest places of challenge and opportunity are where those urban spaces begin to encroach into those wild places. And that nexus between the urban and forestry, and to be quite honest, the peri-urban spaces around those urban landscapes, where those people are building in forests, new communities that are springing up in forests or existing communities that have been built in forests decades or centuries ago, they are now at an increasing risk of forest and other challenges, that there are resources available for those communities as well — which is to say the portions of the bill that we’re talking about may appear in the ag title, but they don’t just help farmers and forestry professionals. They help the people who live in rural communities and in forest communities as well.
I think another thing just to mention here is that the focus of the Build Back Better Act, all of the agriculture, both the farming and the forestry title, are focused on climate change. That’s the real driver behind these investments. And so it is both for the short-term adaptation to climate change, as well as to give producers tools to mitigate, ultimately, the climate crisis, and then put them at the core of our nation’s response to climate change.
Much of what we’re seeing in forest fire frequency and intensity and distribution is, in fact, driven by climate change. That’s undeniable. And while I’m not an expert, I defy you to find one who would say otherwise.
One of the things that we’re seeing is not just the change in weather patterns and rainfall, but in the distribution of insect pests. And insect pests, which are causing large die-offs of timber stands are part of what is contributing to this increasing intensity, duration, and frequency of forest fires.
Our farmers are seeing that too. They’re seeing different kinds of pests that used to not exist in their landscapes become more frequent, we’re having fewer cold freezes that are killing off insect pests or disease. And so we’re seeing not just a change in water and weather, but a change in pest pressures that farmers are experiencing.
RG: And soil is also a key part of climate change. And climate activists often talk about the role that it plays or it can play. What does the Build Back Better Act do when it comes to addressing soil?
ED: That’s an excellent question. There are a couple of things that the Build Back Better Act does within its narrow range of funding options. And so what the folks who put the bill together did was to invest in existing Working Lands Conservation programs. Those are the programs that farmers use to adopt or increase their adoption of conservation practices on the land that they’re working. And there’s a host of those different programs and we can get into that if it’s of interest.
But at the heart of it is a two-pronged approach: One is increasing the amount of carbon that goes into the soil — and there’s a lot of different ways of saying it, sometimes it’s talked about it’s sequestration, sometimes it’s talked about soil health — but at the heart of it, it’s really about getting more carbon into the soil and building the health of that soil structure for the long term. And that’s not just about sequestration; it increases the ability of soils to hold water, and that is ultimately really helpful for many farmers in many places — whether they get very little rain or they get too much rain all at once — in managing the amount of soil moisture available to the crops that they’re growing. So soil carbon is one thing.
The other thing that it does is it focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that can result from some types of farming practices. Some of that is animal agriculture. Some of that is the way in which we handle farm wastes, some of it is the way in which we apply fertilizers. And so there are within all of the different conservation programs, ways and tools that farmers can use to help reduce the actual production of greenhouse gases. And as you know, and as I’ve heard you speak about previously, agriculture contributes significantly to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we have as a country.
The other thing that it does, perhaps less directly, but I think just as importantly, while it does certainly focus on climate change, there are a variety of other benefits from agricultural conservation programs. And that’s things like increased water availability, and water quality, and habitat for wildlife, open spaces for people to enjoy. And I think that using the existing Working Lands Conservation programs, as the folks who drafted this bill did, helps to make sure that even as we’re focused on carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction, we’re also getting those additional benefits that come from supporting farmers as they try to do the best that they can to conserve the land and the resources.
RG: And it looks like there’s more than $20 billion in this package for conservation. How does that compare to the kind of investment that we’ve made in the past in conservation?
ED: As you mentioned at the top of our conversation here today, this passed the House, and it has not yet made it through the Senate, and there’s a lot of question about —
RG: You’re not counting your conservation chickens?
ED: No, no I’m not. I never count chickens — as a large animal veterinarian, it’s against my practice. But to be serious, we don’t know ultimately what will happen with this bill.
I will say that the $27-$28 billion, depending on how you account for it, is a transformative amount of money. It is essentially equal to the entire amount that we currently spend on conservation programs in the Farm Bill. So we’re looking at really and truly doubling the amount of money that’s available for conservation programs. And when we say $28 billion, just so you know, everyone is clear, that’s not a check for $28 billion, go out and spend it in year one. All of the programs that would receive funding through the Build Back Better Act have spending plans, and that money is intended to be spent over 10 years. And so it’s $28 billion over 10 years.
[Musical interlude.]
RG: And so from a layperson’s kind of perspective, as I kind of casually take in coverage of farming, you see a lot of focus on almond growers out West absorbing an extraordinary amount of water to the point where you have people who refuse to buy almonds at this point, or who won’t drink almond milk, because they’re so worried about the implications and prefer oat milk, for instance, because the you know, oats seem to be a better kind of substitute crop, or rotation crop — less brutal to the earth. Where do you come down on those types of questions? And what does this bill do to kind of push policy in a direction that is marrying resources with production?
ED: It is a really interesting question. And I think the first thing that I would put as part of my response is: American agricultural policy is about carrots and not sticks. And so much of the investment in the Build Back Better Act, and really, across almost all of American agricultural policy, is a series of incentives to help lower the barrier for farmers that want to do more. I think the Build Back Better Act is built in that mold, and I think the Farm Bill is also very much built in that mold. Whether or not that is the right approach as we get into a world where climate change is no longer a debatable concept, but is seen as perhaps the most urgent and one of the greatest existential threats to humanity, I think there’s really a robust conversation that’s happening about the degree to which farmers can not just be supported as they get better, but as we can really start to raise the floor for some producers in some sectors of the industry that have not been maybe contributing as much as folks think they should. We’re not there yet. That’s a conversation that’s been ongoing for, quite honestly, about 200 years.
That said, you know, the issue of water quality and water availability for water-intensive crops, and you could put alfalfa production in California right next to those almonds as a really thirsty crop that has some pretty significant impacts on what people grow and where they grow it, the Farm Bill doesn’t do water. American water policy is not covered by the ag committees in the House and Senate. It is generally not something that is covered by USDA directly and instead is handled by the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and a few other —
RG: That’s kind of hilarious, isn’t it?
ED: Well, it is. But, part of it is —
RG: As I understand it, water is pretty important to farming.
ED: Yeah, no, no, it’s essential. You can’t do it with too much or too little. But part of it is when the departments grew up, agriculture was a very different pursuit when Lincoln established the USDA and much of the concern around water sharing, and water scarcity that affects the western half of the country wasn’t part of the country when the USDA was established. And some of those lines were initially drawn. And rightly or wrongly, the Farm Bill doesn’t really address water, and much of the water-sharing agreements, and again, not an expert here, much of the water-sharing agreements that we have are between states and built around watersheds, particularly around the Colorado River Basin is a particular concern right now as water becomes increasingly unavailable there.
That isn’t to say that agriculture has no role in water. What you’re talking about is what kind of plantings farmers are going to do with the available water that they have and the value of the land that’s associated with those water rights. That’s pretty significant. I’ll say that the Build Back Better Act is agnostic on those issues, except where it comes to conservation programs that can help make more water available by retaining more water in the soil through existing farming conservation programs, or in making sure that water that is coming off of farmland is of good quality that can be used for irrigation and other places. There is a concern among many folks who sort of entered into the work around Build Back Better Act, that there was going to be a lot of money for irrigation, because there is a great and urgent need for many of the established producers with those almond trees to keep them watered if they can. I think that there is money available in the infrastructure bill that passed to support some of those larger water infrastructure projects. But I think the Build Back Better Act rightly sticks pretty closely towards conservation programs rather than water management or water control.
RG: I also saw that there was a lot of money for cover crops.
ED: Yeah.
RG: Is that an expansion? And what could be the result of that?
ED: Yeah, that’s a great question. So if you look at all of the different investments that are made in that conservation suite, there is a new one. And it isn’t to say that it’s a new authority. It is a creative interpretation of an existing authority to make some additional money, about $5 billion available, for conservation assistance, namely in the form of cover crops.
There’s a general consensus that cover crops are an essential part of climate adaptation and ultimately mitigation strategy. And I think that it is important to increase the amount of cover crops grown and the coverage of that across the country. I think that’s a noble pursuit and a smart thing to do. That said, cover crops are an entry point. They’re the thing that many farmers will consider adopting as one of the earliest types of conservation practices that they would choose to employ. So it’s important as a gateway.
But in and of itself, it may not be enough or there may be other things that a farmer could do that have even greater benefits for themselves, their operations, their farms, their communities and the environment, which I think is why it makes sense to put some money into the bill to support cover crops, and the adoption by folks who maybe haven’t done it in the past, but also to invest in more integrated programs: Conservation Stewardship Program, the EQIP program, RCPP, there’s an alphabet soup of USDA programs that all received funding under this bill. But the cover-crop element of it is important. It is necessary but not sufficient in order to get the job done.
RG: And so that’s expected in what, 2023?
ED: Yep. Yeah.
RG: And let’s assume we’re in a world where Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress at that point. Is the thinking from Republicans, from some of their big ag allies, that they will reverse some of their losses here? Or that they will go in and claim and redirect some of this funding?
ED: So I think the simplest answer is yes. I think in the event that there is a change in one or both houses of Congress, in terms of party control, could create a very different environment in which the bill is drafted.
So there is a concept called baseline, which might be worth mentioning right now. And that is that there’s a certain amount of funding that is available in a Farm Bill reauthorization — and we try to reauthorize Farm Bills every five years — which in and of itself is kind of a unique thing. Really only the National Defense Authorization Act, the NDAA, which the Senate is considering right now, which we reauthorize every year, and the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill, are sort of the only bills that get this continuous re-evaluation and re-examination. So I think it’s also reflective of pretty considerable priorities that we have as people and as a nation.
That said, we come back to this Farm Bill every five years to readjust and incrementally change — sometimes more than incrementally change — farm policy. And we’re going to have, again, if the Build Back Better Act passes in its current House form, a lot of money goes into conservation. Only some of that money will be spent in the first two years — so 2022 and 2023 — at which point, we’ll be deep into the process of drafting a Farm Bill.
It is possible that the funding that’s made available in Build Back Better Act could be reclaimed, and repurposed, and used if it’s done correctly, to increase baseline, which is that total funding amount that’s available for the Farm Bill. This is still open to considered legal opinions and much debate within ag policy spaces of how this could be affected. And there’s lots of folks who are a lot smarter than I am that are looking at the issue right now. But suffice it to say that this could really, again, make a huge difference for conservation, not just in this 10-year window, but for all Farm Bills going forward.
So that’s part of how it’s particularly transformative. But that said, he who runs the chamber writes the bills, and so there is a concern that having this much money on the table going into the Farm Bill could make things easier, or they could make them more challenging as the fights around how this money could be repurposed really start.
That said, like with the NDAA, like with the Farm Bill, ag policy is one of the places in which it is still possible to have bipartisan conversations, bipartisan legislation, and bipartisan improvements to policy. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s really, really hard. And the staffers who work on it work very hard to try to create some degree of bipartisan support. The last Farm Bill that we had, it was a challenging environment for progressive agricultural policy ideas, but it passed by the greatest margin of any Farm Bill. And I think that just because there may be a change in the control of the Congress, doesn’t mean that all of these conservation investments are going to disappear. As a matter of fact, I think if you look back to some of the previous conversation here, there is a growing understanding that climate change is real, farmers are partly responsible for it, and certainly should be part of the solution to it, and that’s across all sectors of the farm economy if they’re being serious and they’re being honest.
RG: And slightly outside of the ag title, there’s also a ton of money going into retiring the debt of a lot of coal plants in rural areas, and basically financing and funding these these areas to build rural, clean-energy cooperatives to basically shut down the coal plants and rebuild them from a clean energy perspective. Has there been any interplay with the ag sector there, given that this is happening in the same area? Or are these divorced policies?
ED: No, no, they’re married together in a lot of ways, and I think this is maybe getting back to the question of who has jurisdiction. Whereas you would expect USDA to be deeply involved in water, but in fact, it is not because it is not jurisdictional to the ag committees, most of energy production in this country actually also has nothing to do with agriculture beyond some conversations around biofuels, which we can have another time. But this is actually about rural development, right? So the USDA has an incredibly important rural development sub agency. And those folks that work over there have extraordinary authorities and funding available for rural communities.
USDA has a great presence in rural communities. And so many of the programs that exist for urban, peri-urban, and suburban spaces are mirrored in USDA within the Rural Development Agency. And so that also includes energy production in rural communities. And so what we’re seeing in the ag title is investments in rural development to improve rural energy production. And because this is a climate focused-bill, a lot of that is targeted towards converting plants to be not just more efficient, change the type of fuel that they might be using, and there’s a pretty significant investment in rural solar programs. And most of this happens through REAP, the REAP program. And those investments are not directly tied to agriculture, but they are part of USDA, and they have a really important impact on farmers. Because really, those folks tend to live — not all — but many of them tend to live in rural communities. And so, you know, the transition from a coal-fired power plant to a solar plant can really help their quality of life, reduce the environmental impact in their communities. Farmers live in these communities, they don’t just farm and live someplace else, right? So if there’s a dirty coal plant in their backyard, then it’s important that that plant have support to transition to a cleaner fuel or, maybe even better, that that farmer could potentially put wind or solar on their own land to feed back into a grid to make a more distributed, more resilient grid, and that they could benefit directly from those financial arrangements or from that power production.
So it’s a pretty significant component of the bill. But it isn’t directly tied to agriculture production per se.
RG: I wanted to ask you about one of my favorite pet ideas that I’ve heard over the years, which is: Iowa, because of its first caucus in the nation status, has distorted biofuel policy for a couple decades now — and not necessarily to their own benefit. As you know, they’re now invested strategically in a way that could have negative consequences for them if the industry moves in the wrong direction. And people are no longer interested in pumping corn into their cars. You saw them suffering during the pandemic, when people were driving less. And you know, as we transition to electric vehicles, they’ll continue to suffer. So I’ve heard people suggest: Well, if they’re going to be growing corn for biofuels, why not turn those biofuels into plastics, and then landfill those plastics? Don’t pretend you’re going to recycle them; landfill them and consider that to be a version of carbon sequestration. Is that crazy?
ED: Yeah. Yeah, that’s crazy.
RG: Yeah, that’s crazy?
ED: Yeah, that’s crazy.
RG: How so?
ED: Well, so a couple of things.
One, I think you’re right to point to not just the first-in-the-nation caucus status of Iowa, but the sort of increasing concentration, consolidation, and frequency of monoculture crop production as a real problem in what we choose to plant, and ethanol certainly plays a role in creating a demand for corn in particular.
That said, what you just described is a whole lot of steps to build a thing to put into the dirt. And I think it’s probably a lot more efficient to help those farmers that are growing corn and beans and rotation in some of those big upper Midwestern and central states to transition to more diversified production that is inherently better for their own resilience, better for the climate, and quite frankly, better for everyone because instead of producing corn and beans that go into fuel — jet fuel, bioethanol in gas tanks and biodiesel, or into captive animal production in CAFOs — it could go into human food. And honestly, that’s probably a better way to both increase the amount of carbon that’s going into the ground, capture additional environmental benefits that come from diversifying our production systems, and really to limit the risk that those farmers face if they are at the mercy of one or two commodity markets that can be affected by something that happens three quarters of the way around the planet.
I think we could spend the money that we would spend on helping farmers transition to bio-based plastic as a tool of sequestration much better by giving it to them to help them adopt new planting systems. And we’ve got plenty of carrots in terms of conservation programs. But we also have some that are tucked in other titles of the Farm Bill that we’ll get to in 2023, including commodity support payments and crop insurance payments, and the degree to which we subsidize farmers for current production practices.
Farmers didn’t just wake up one day and decide: I’m going to plant nothing but corn and beans. We made a system that made that almost inevitable for some farmers — or, if not inevitable, maximally profitable. And if we are going to continue to spend money on farmers to help them and to support them, and I really think that we should, and I think that members of NSAC and other ag groups agree, we should try to make sure that we spend that money well. And then we do it in a smart way that actually helps farmers become more resilient, and have a greater contribution to mitigating the climate change crisis that is affecting them every day on their farms and in their food systems.
What you’ve proposed is novel, but I think there’s probably about 16 too many steps in it, and that we should probably just concentrate on what we can do on the farm.
RG: Well, I’ll stick to the reporting and the podcasting.
ED: Hey, if you want to develop a bill, we’re here for ya. We can talk.
RG: [Laughs.] There you go. There you go. Dr. Deeble, thank you so much for joining us on Deconstructed.
ED: It’s been my pleasure. And thank you very much for doing some really excellent reporting on budget reconciliation, the Build Back Better Act, and for putting, I think, a really important spotlight on American ag policy in a really transformative time.
RG: Good luck in the Senate.
ED: Thank you, sir.
RG: That was Eric Deeble, and that’s our show.
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