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Regenerative Ag in the IRA

Today in our climate news section, "This Week In Climate", we look at regenerative agriculture in the IRA.
Julian Moore
Feb 14, 2023 11 min read
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In the climate news blizzard that followed the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage, one of the most historic investments in climate solutions went largely unnoticed.

The IRA included $20 billion in funding for climate measures in agriculture, much of which was geared toward expanding regenerative techniques. Now Republicans in Congress are trying to re-route that funding to crop subsidies, or cut it altogether.

The five-year federal farm bill is set to expire this October, and half a trillion dollars are on the table for funding that impacts industries and communities across the country, making a deal in the divided Congress essential. But allocations for programs called for by the IRA have become a point of contention amongst Republicans with varying views on climate change.

The IRA multiplied funding for four active conservation programs in the Department of Agriculture:

The EQIP was the main beneficiary of the funding boost. It’s a three-decade old program that funds ecosystem restoration and decarbonization projects on American farmland, including with regenerative agriculture practices.

One such practice funded by EQIP is the cultivation of cover crops. Plants like radishes, clovers and rye can quickly settle roots and grow on fallow farm plots, thereby providing “cover” for the ground below. That helps keep moisture in the soil during droughts and improves ground water absorption during floods.

Planting cover crops is still relatively rare in the U.S. due to prohibitive up-front costs and an average three-year return on investment, making the EQIP funds even more important.

Meanwhile, CSP promotes and funds long-term projects on American farms like agroforestry measures that replace monoculture farms with more fruiting trees and shrubs that reduce demand for fertilizer. Some climate advocates point out that, while the IRA funding is important for regenerative ag, it makes no mention of tackling the outsized emissions from cattle.

Newly-elected Republicans appear reluctant to keep these programs alive, including House Agriculture Chair G.T. Thompson who lamented that “there is so much money being thrown into climate change.”

Some have argued that climate hawks should think twice about framing the farm bill as a vehicle for climate policy. Emily Bass of the Breakthrough Institute argues that prioritizing regenerative agriculture in the farm bill should take a backseat to more “pragmatic tactics” that would fall in line with Republican policy goals, like increasing the efficiency and output of existing farms.

Farm to Forked

Sustainable agriculture is also running into strong political opposition behind closed doors in Brussels.

The EU’s “Farm to Fork” sustainable food strategy calls for reducing hazardous pesticide and fertilizer use in Europe by 50% by 2030, while growing organic farming to a quarter of all EU farms in the same timeframe.

Much like the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork plan’s sweeping ambitions are both its strength and its weakness. The strategy aims to tackle many of the systemic problems threatening the food system in Europe on a fast-tracked time scale.

But behind each of these objectives are entrenched economic industries and constituencies that are already struggling to cope with pesticide bans and tight water supply. With open debates on so many policy fronts, conflicting interests from 27 countries are putting progress on climate-friendly agriculture in peril.

One example is the fight over EU funding for the beef and red wine industries. Earlier this year, 34 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) condemned an EU-sponsored “Become a Beefetarian” PR campaign that directed €4.5 million to Spanish and Belgian beef lobby groups to promote meat consumption.

Beef is far and away the most greenhouse gas-intensive part of modern diets and the funding to protect European cow farmers struck the climate-friendly MEPs as counter-productive while the Green Deal is gaining steam.

On the other hand, EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has been openly critical of the European Green Deal for years. He has echoed concerns from Southern and Eastern European countries about the fairness of raising standards for animal welfare and reducing pesticides across the continent despite marked economic disparities between member states.

MEPs are hurrying to resolve the conflicts before the pall of a lame-duck session falls over Brussels ahead of European elections in 2024.

What About China?

Some good news for regenerative agriculture came out of China this week, where researchers found that a trial of low-methane rice cultivation methods showed improved crop yields of up to 20%.

The conversation around methane emissions in agriculture tends to focus on the American and European contexts, where emissions stem primarily from cow-related sources: enteric fermentation (or, burps) and the decomposition of manure.

In China, however, most agricultural methane emissions come from cultivating rice. Rice is a food staple for more than 3.5 billion people around the world, but accounts for 12% of global methane emissions. Almost a third of the world’s annual stock comes from China.

Rice’s climate problem is in the paddies.

Flooded paddies became the customary cultivation method in China because for millennia they offered farmers a low-tech pesticide solution. Rice is perfectly suited to grow on dry land, but it also grows in shallow water, where many weeds and pests that compete with it cannot.

Unfortunately, micro-organisms called methanogens also love water-logged marshes, especially the ones with rice in them. Methanogens thrive in oxygen-poor and nutrient-rich environments. Nestled comfortably underwater and alongside rice plants, millions of these tiny prokaryotes produce roughly as much greenhouse gas pollution as flying when they metabolize rice roots.

The resulting emissions combined with historic droughts in China’s rice bowl last year are accelerating the race to develop less-water intensive rice farming to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

One approach is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a process developed in Madagascar in 1981 that allows rice to thrive in shallower paddies, which are left to dry in some parts of the year. SRI has proven to be an effective low-emissions technique in Africa and Latin America.

But it hasn’t worked out so far in Southwestern China’s rice regions in part because it runs counter to long-held traditions. Rice farms in Southern China are often plotted together, meaning that irrigation from one farmer’s paddy can easily run over into another’s, confusing and often un-doing progress.

Researchers have worked around this by planting rice on top of rows of mounded earth with flooded trenches in between them, a process known as “furrow flooding”. The Institute of Soil Science at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that this experiment reduced methane emissions by 60–80%.

Rice farming has also moved to more Northern parts of China, where dry-farming has been shown to reduce methane outputs by 30%. Together, these programs are at the top of the Chinese government’s list for rural emissions reductions to be completed in the coming years.

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The Author

Julian Moore