A Soil and Water Conservation District technician consults with a farmer in a cover crop field of rye grass. Cover crops are used to restore soil nutrients and prevent erosion. (Photo by Edwin Remsberg and USDA-SARE)
WASHINGTON — Farmers and academics at a Wednesday hearing stressed the need for members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee to support regenerative agriculture farming practices in the upcoming farm bill in order to protect topsoil.
U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chair David Scott said he held the hearing to discuss ways policymakers and the Department of Agriculture could help farmers incorporate regenerative agriculture practices. That investment in soil health would curb climate change and prevent a food shortage, the Georgia Democrat said.
Regenerative agriculture occurs in farming and grazing practices that focus on rebuilding organic matter in topsoil, restoring degraded soil biodiversity and improving the water cycle. All of these mitigate climate change by growing plants that capture carbon dioxide and move it into the soil.
“Conventional agriculture models are degrading American soil,” Jeff Moyer, the chief executive officer of Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, said. Rodale was a pioneer in organic farming.
About 95% of food is grown from topsoil, which is the most important component to food systems. If soil cannot filter water and absorb carbon, it will hinder farmers’ ability to grow food to feed people, creating a food crisis. Around the world, soil is eroding 10 to 40 times faster than it can be replaced.
Moyer said a third of the world’s soil has already degraded and if “the current rate of soil degradation continues, all of the world’s topsoil could be lost within 60 years.”
“The very start of our food supply chain is the earth, and we are losing the viable component of carbon,” Scott said, adding that it’s important to get carbon back into the soil. Carbon is the primary energy source for plants.
A study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in February found that “the Midwest has lost approximately 57.6 billion metric tons of topsoil since farmers began tilling the soil, 160 years ago.”
“The historical erosion rates exceed predictions of present-day erosion rates from national soil erosion assessments and levels considered tolerable by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” according to the report.
USDA project funding
The Biden administration has funneled as much as $3 billion to projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture. On Wednesday, USDA announced an expansion of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program to fund conservation programs.
Scott said a documentary, titled “Kiss the Ground,” helped open his eyes to the need to invest in regenerative agriculture.
“That is the way that we make sure that we have food security,” he said.
Republicans on the committee stressed that USDA programs based around regenerative agriculture should not become mandatory, and the top GOP lawmaker, Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, argued that “tying food policy to climate policy is harmful.”
“Small farmers can’t always take on the risks that large farms can when adopting new practices, and I certainly don’t want to be the person that walks on to one of their farms and tells them the federal government mandates that they uphold your economic viability of their operations and livelihoods for the sake of climate change,” Thompson said.
He added that inflation was also more of an issue to farmers and that many farmers in his state already practice regenerative agriculture such as cover crops, which help prevent soil erosion and keep nutrients in the soil.
Rep. Jim Baird, an Indiana Republican, also questioned whether organic food was more nutritious than that produced by standard farming practices.
Rebecca Larson, the vice president of the Western Sugar Cooperative in Denver, Colorado, said there’s no substantial research that organic food has more nutrients and much of that rhetoric is “fear-based marketing.”
A study from 2019 has found that organic production can boost some key nutrients in foods, but most of those increases are moderate.
Rebuilding soil health
Rick Clark, a farmer from Williamsport, Indiana, said he adopted regenerative farming practices for his 7,000-acre cattle farm to rebuild the soil health over the past decade.
“We need to preserve our soil, cause that is going to be the future of our farming,” he said.
Rep. Shontel Brown, an Ohio Democrat, asked Clark how Congress can support regenerative farming efforts.
Clark, a representative from Regenerate America, urged lawmakers to consider bolstering education and technical assistance to farmers wanting to start using those practices, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program from USDA. Regenerate America is a coalition of farmers and business partners that lobby for regenerative farming practices in the upcoming farm bill.
“Teaching and a support group is so critical here,” he said.
Clark said he believes these programs should remain voluntary, but that the government should consider giving farmers who implement these practices the biggest share of federal subsidiary benefits. He also urged lawmakers to bolster crop insurance to help reduce the risk farmers have when implementing regenerative farming practices.
“This means bolstering crop insurance by removing outdated barriers and creating incentives that recognize the risk-reduction benefits of soil health and conservation practices and reward farmers implementing those practices — like a ‘good driver’ discount on your car insurance,” he said.
Moyer also pushed for lawmakers to reform crop insurance because current policies “create disincentives for American farmers seeking to transition and operate under a regenerative organic model.”
Clark added that USDA should consider defining what regenerative agriculture means and those practices should be added to labels for consumers. Clark added that many of the practices used in regenerative farming originated from Indigenous farming practices, and said those voices need to be heard by the committee.
Rep. Alma Adams, a North Carolina Democrat, asked one of the witnesses, Steve Nygren from Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, how regenerative agriculture can help build local economies.
Nygren is the founder and chief executive officer of Serenbe, which is an urban village within the city limits of Chattahoochee Hills that he and his wife created with the vision of a sustainable community.
“Soil health leads to economic vitality,” he said.
He said the shrinking of family farms has an economic impact on the local community. Industrial agriculture is not going to support the local economy the way local farmers do, he said.
“Think of soil health as a way to bring small towns back to life,” Nygren said.
He pointed to his state as an example. In 1950, nearly half of Georgia’s food came from the state, and today that number is nearly a quarter. In Serenbe, 70% of the 40,000 acres is reserved for agriculture and each week 75 families pay $34 for their weekly produce.
“If we bring small farms back into rural communities across the United States, we’ll not only have a local food system that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels to get it to the shelf, but it can go directly from the farms to the consumer … it will really stimulate the local economy,” he said.
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