HEAL Farm Bill Backgrounder – Climate and Environment

Ensuring the Survival of Ecosystems and Our Planet

Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to environmental destruction and climate crisis. Globally, agriculture contributes nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions through forest clearance and land conversion, transportation, animal feedlots, fertilizer use, and other processes. Industrial agriculture is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss worldwide, and it contributes to soil erosion, massive decreases in critically-important insect species, and the contamination of water sources through toxic runoff from chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

After decades of widespread ecological destruction, Congress added a conservation title (Title II) to the farm bill in 1985, to encourage farmers to practice environmentally-friendly practices. Conservation programs have been essential in restoring critical habitats and ecosystems, restoring soil fertility, and conserving water. Many of these practices also serve climate goals by boosting carbon sequestration — the process of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it (especially in soil, forests, and wetlands). In spite of the importance of conservation programs, their funding is consistently on the chopping block in farm bill negotiations.

Some programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the National Organic Program (NOP) do not always reach the people who need the most support and who are employing the most environmentally-beneficial practices. In general, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and incentives use narrow, restrictive definitions that exclude many people using ecological and regenerative agricultural methods. Burdensome paperwork and rigorous requirements also pose barriers for many producers. CSP in particular has often seen declining rates of participation by BIPOC producers, prompting calls to increase priority funding for these groups. Additionally, some conservation programs like EQIP actually provide a substantial amount of support for industrial practices, including Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and other operations that are bad for the environment (as well as for labor and market competition). 

Many hope that farm bill legislation can play a role in mitigating climate change, including through the promotion of climate-smart agriculture. However, climate-smart agriculture is a very vague umbrella term for a wide range of different practices, many of which do not meet climate goals. We must ensure that the “climate-smart” practices included in the farm bill (and accompanying legislation) build true climate resilience and support small-scale and BIPOC producers.

Promote Real Solutions: Agroecology and Regenerative Agriculture 

The farm bill must dedicate funding support for proven climate solutions, including regenerative agriculture, agroecology, and Indigenous food production methods. These approaches help restore soil, water, air, and biodiversity, as well as increasing carbon sequestration.

Traditional agroecological practices (also known as regenerative agriculture) are built on a mutual relationship with the land. Producers use compost, cover cropping, minimal tillage, and crop diversity to grow food. These practices rebuild and improve soil health, protect biodiversity, and sequester carbon in the soil, reducing the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Scientists say that transforming our food system to reflect these practices can potentially change the fate of our planet

Racial Justice is Climate Justice

We also need greater recognition among policymakers that racial justice is climate justice. Many of the practices of responsible land stewardship now being promoted as “climate-smart” were developed, maintained, and practiced by Indigenous communities and communities of color, even amid numerous pressures from industrial agriculture. Many Black farming traditions can be linked to practices from the African continent, which were passed on through generations, even as enslavement, white supremacy, and industrial capitalism sought to stamp out Black life and cultures. Many immigrant farmers of color are similarly using their traditional methods to produce food in environmentally-friendly ways. Indigenous peoples have sustainably managed environments for millenia, employing traditional ecological knowledge (TEK); some Native nations are now leading the way on ecological restoration of contaminated land and water that has finally been returned to them.

Unfortunately, USDA support for ecological and organic agriculture has largely gone to white farmers, rather than to BIPOC producers who have been employing similar practices for generations. For this reason, it is critical to acknowledge and center racial justice as a central component of developing climate solutions and to prioritize BIPOC producers in all USDA program funding, including conservation programs.

Beware of False Solutions

Many corporations, banks, and mega-farms (and their political allies) promote false solutions that deepen corporate power, fail to address climate justice, and in some cases even exacerbate the climate crisis. These include:

Carbon Markets

Carbon markets involve the buying and selling of carbon credits or carbon offsets. These credits can then be used to support a wide range of projects that claim to sequester carbon, including tree planting or leaving mature forests intact, low-emissions agriculture, renewable energy projects, biodigesters, and carbon capture and storage projects, among others.

Carbon markets claim to work through “net zero” emissions. The idea of net zero is based on the incorrect assumption that corporations, countries, or other institutions can invest in enough carbon sequestration activities to effectively cancel out their emissions. For example, massive meat and dairy corporations can purchase carbon credits to offset their emissions, claiming to pursue the goal of reaching net zero even as their emissions increase.

However, carbon markets (and net zero) do not work. First and foremost, they unfairly place the burden onto producers, while allowing large food and farm corporations to present themselves as “sustainable” without changing their own practices. Second, they do not actually reduce emissions: they allow the emissions of the worst polluters to continue unabated and therefore reduce incentives for developing lower-polluting practices. Additionally, land-based carbon projects often threaten small-scale and BIPOC farmers’ already limited access to land. For example, efforts to reserve large tracts of forested land often target Indigenous territories, placing new kinds of pressures on Tribal land management and increasing the potential for corporate land speculation and land grabs. Overall, carbon markets have a poor track record in meeting climate goals and can exacerbate social and environmental inequities.


Biodigesters (also known as methane digesters or anaerobic digesters) are systems that convert large amounts of animal manure into products like fuel and fertilizer. To function properly, biodigesters need huge amounts of manure, and are only suitable for CAFOs (massive feedlots with large numbers of animals), which produce high emissions of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, as well as contaminating soil, air, and groundwater with pathogens, antibiotics, and other pollutants. Because biodigesters are extremely expensive to install and maintain, USDA programs like EQIP, the Conservation Loan program, and the Value-Added Producer Grant have offered taxpayer-funded support to large-scale producers to offset the costs of installing biodigesters. 

But biodigesters come with a host of environmental problems. They can contribute to air pollution and continued emissions, particularly if the gas is then burned as a source of fuel. They divert only a small percentage of waste streams from CAFOs, doing little to address contamination. Additionally, methane produced from animal waste is low in energy; to produce sufficient amounts of energy, biodigesters need additional biomass, which requires even more acreage devoted to feed grains. Biodigesters are also unnecessary. Techniques like manure spreading avoid many of the issues with methane emissions that biodigesters claim to address, and do so at a lower cost.

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS)

Carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) projects redirect carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from industrial operations into underground reservoirs, where it can be stored and reused. Much of the CO2 captured in existing CCUS projects is used in the fertilizer industry and in the process of extracting oil from already-depleted reserves. To transport and store CO2, these projects also rely on the creation of pipelines, which raise risks of land seizure and contamination. Past farm bill negotiations have moved to allow carbon capture technologies to access USDA loan and grant programs, but after decades of experimentation and implementation, CCUS remains too cumbersome and costly to make a meaningful or timely contribution in the transition to renewable energy and diverts attention from more effective and scalable solutions.

Digital and precision agriculture

Digital and precision agriculture has promised to use Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain technology, drones, and various apps to further mechanize farming and monitor field conditions. Proponents claim that these technologies will reduce the environmental and climate impact of agriculture by allowing for more precise doses of fertilizers and pesticides and better water management, but the reality is that they rely on massive data centers and technologies that have very high levels of emissions and other environmental impacts. They are also too expensive and impractical for many farmers, mostly benefiting larger operators with more financial resources and commercial connectivity. Additionally, digital agriculture technologies raise serious concerns about data ownership and privacy, due to the involvement of third parties and data managers.

What can we do?

  • Support the Justice for Black Farmers Act (J4BF), which includes some environmental provisions in addition to provisions aimed at supporting Black producers. These include providing supplemental payments for climate stewardship practices and prioritizing BIPOC producers for conservation technical assistance, CSP, and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).
  • Support legislation that centers BIPOC producers and racial justice as part of the solution for climate change. Legislation like the Agricultural Resilience Act (ARA), which aims to improve soil health, boost farm energy initiatives, and reduce food waste (among other goals), is a good start, but could go farther in incorporating racial justice frameworks.
  • Support the Protect America's Children from Toxic Pesticides Act, which proposes to amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act to fully protect the safety of children and the environment and remove dangerous pesticides from use.
  • Push for the addition of a Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of Title II (Conservation).