July was a news-packed month for U.S. agriculture as President Biden and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to the pandemic and a summer heavily affected by climate change. The House & Senate Agriculture Committees drafted and passed several bills to meet the needs of many stakeholders, while Vilsack encouraged private sector solutions alongside increased federal support. Now that we’ve entered into August, let’s reflect on the most impactful stories from July.
Considering severe drought in Western states, wildfires through the west coast, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters throughout this year, disaster aid is an essential tool for resilient agricultural producers. As we reported last week, the House Agriculture Committee passed an $8.5 billion disaster bill to cover losses in agricultural production in 2020 and 2021. While just this week, the Senate Ag Appropriations Committee approved $7 billion in disaster assistance through the annual USDA/FDA spending bill, totaling $26 billion in agriculture programs. While neither bill has passed through the full legislative process yet, it is clear that significant disaster assistance is coming to farmers.
This assistance will provide funding to producers experiencing crop, livestock, and commodity losses due to adverse weather events. Programs include the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus (WHIP+) to offset losses from qualifying natural disasters since 2018. During the bills markup session, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), chair of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, highlighted a $15 million program to promote “working lands resiliency” through climate-smart production practices (Heller E&E News). The inclusion of these programs reflects the role that climate change plays in agriculture today, where farms both face the current consequences of climate change alongside the responsibility to mitigate climate change’s effect in the future.
Meatpacking plants received significant attention throughout the pandemic as they become hotspots for transmission of COVID-19. Through this attention came public concern for the practices behind the industry, from poor working conditions to over-stressed facilities and animals. In response, Vilsack announced in early July that the USDA will invest $500 million in grants, loans, and technical assistance to support smaller processing facilities and allow new ones to enter the market. This funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion aid package passed in March and regarded as Biden’s first major response to the pandemic.
This USDA funding will provide better support for the meatpacking industry, particularly at the small and local scale. In order to tackle the large-scale issues of the industry, Biden has responded with an executive order, titled “Promoting Competition in the American Economy.” This executive order directs the USDA to implement rules that better allow farmers to sue large agribusiness companies over deceptive and exploitive contracts. Additionally, the “Product of USA” meat label will soon exclude animals that have been raised in other countries but processed in the U.S. – which has been allowed until now. The USDA also plans to revive enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act (which monitors anti-competitive practices in the meat industry), and formally report on market concentration and the monopolistic power posed by meatpacking corporations and agriculture input industries.
At the end of June, the Senate passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act, S. 1251 (117) in a 92-8 bipartisan vote, led by Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow. The bill allocates $4 million over four years for the USDA to create a certification program for farmers, ranchers, and foresters to utilize carbon credit markets. Following the Senate vote, representatives in the House have been garnering support in hopes of bringing the legislation to vote.
This government support will significantly expand the carbon credit market, where private companies have already begun their own certification processes. Existing carbon credit companies include Indigo Carbon, Nori, TruCarbon, Nutrien, and many more. Currently, the array of carbon credit companies and varying certification processes make the current market appear risky and inaccessible.
Farmers and land managers can generate carbon credits by implementing practices that cut carbon emissions or pull carbon dioxide through vegetation and soil. These carbon credits are then purchased by corporations looking to offset their own carbon emissions, providing additional revenue to incentive these land management practices.