As I am sure you’ve read on every website that ever existed, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law Tuesday afternoon. How does that affect the future of food production in the United States? Let’s break it down a bit.
First, this graphic from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does a fantastic job of visualizing the multiple inputs necessary for each stage of the food industry. I will be unpacking the impact the IRA will have on greenhouse gas emissions in the primary production phase — the highest GHG-emitting step in the food supply chain.
EPA, From Farm to Kitchen: The Environmental Impacts of Food Waste (Nov. 2021)
Almost $6 billion is designated by the IRA to confront decades of systemic discrimination and provide relief for underserved farmers (defined as those living in high poverty areas, veterans, limited resource producers and newly established farmers and ranchers).
You would think that the necessity of sustenance for survival would ensure farming as an economically secure career path, but the United States’ food system has other ideas. Farming requires so much financial overhead, most producers barely scrape by season to season, entirely dependent upon the success of each crop cycle. Exacerbated weather events due to climate change, such as drought or flooding, can decimate a season’s worth of crops and thus an entire farm’s income. Luckily, the IRA dedicates $3.1 billion overall in debt relief to at-risk farmers and ranchers, lifting some of that financial burden.
Additionally, a total of $2.2 billion is going towards farmers, ranchers and forest landowners who have experienced discrimination, with an additional $10 million for equity commissions to address racial equity issues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lastly, a total of $625 million will be set aside to address a host of discrepancies, including providing technical assistance and improving land access to underserved producers, and increasing agricultural research and education at historically Black, tribal and Hispanic colleges.
A total of $20 billion, to be distributed in intervals beginning in FY2023, is reserved for existing conservation programs within the USDA. What does that look like?
One main conservation program supported by the USDA is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Farmers can apply for funds to implement conservation practices, such as cover cropping expenditures, soil erosion barriers and capital to implement and maintain hedgerows that separate crops while simultaneously providing natural habitat for indigenous species.
CSP annually receives around a $1.8 billion budget, but with the IRA, that number will practically double to $3.5 billion annually. And girl, is that necessary, given the massive drought plaguing the southwest U.S., the rampant flooding drowning the Eastern seaboard and agriculture’s massive annual release of 11 percent of the U.S.’s total GHG emissions.
Let’s talk about the sirloin-shaped-elephant in the room.
Vox’s Future Perfect explained the IRA’s food-centered shortcomings well. The crux of the issue boils down to the law’s failure to address the dirtiest parts of the food sector; meat and dairy production. Many allocated funds directly affect smaller — but still important — areas such as indigenous habitat protection, reducing water pollution and improving soil health. While definitely necessary to address, the actual practices that make dairy and meat production so environmentally atrocious remain unaddressed.
Instead, the IRA focuses on subsidies and tax breaks for biofuels and biogas infrastructure. Biofuels are made of corn and soybeans and “compete with food production for land and water [and also] increase fertilizer and pesticide use, water pollution and GHG emissions,” according to NGO Friends of the Earth. Biofuels are also generated at concentrated animal feed operations, a widely condemned industrial agricultural process that feeds livestock en masse and releases dangerous levels of GHG emissions and animal waste.
These examples represent only part of the impact the IRA will have on the environment and economy moving forward. But any forward progression to curb the climate crisis has to be seen as a win or we run the risk of taking two steps forward and one step back. For now, I’m content to munch on some carrots and continue the work we need to do.