The new farm bill promotes healthy soil and a healthier climate

A soybean field ripening in the spring.

The Farm Bill isn’t typically considered environmental legislation, but that’s a mistake. The legislation has an enormous direct impact on the quality of our country’s air, water and, perhaps most important, its soil. As a result, it also determines the health of our economy and environment. And the 2018 edition, which provides a blueprint for America’s agricultural, conservation and nutrition policy for the next five years, includes a promising new program that could help save the climate.

That initiative, a new and strategic climate-friendly pilot program that incentivizes and rewards carbon performance on farms, was advanced by a unique coalition of farm, business and environmental groups, recognizing that it will benefit them all while simultaneously helping protect the natural systems on which they all depend.

The climate impact of farming can go both ways. Through high-level use of fossil-fuel intensive pesticides, fertilizers and field machinery, agriculture contributes significantly to carbon emissions, and thereby to the quickly unfolding phenomenon of climate change.

But by deploying smart cultivation practices such as reduced tillage, cover crops and crop rotation, farmers also can capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

Healthier carbon rich soils require far less of those expensive fossil fuel-laden chemical inputs, which improves soil’s overall health. That leads to greater crop quality, yield and resilience to drought and flooding. And in the process, farmers will save money by breaking away from practices that have held them in a tightening cycle of soaring expenses to compensate for soil degradation.

The new soil health provision in this year’s Farm Bill designates funding for a pilot project to incentivize farmers to adopt practices that improve soil health and increase carbon levels, while establishing protocols for measuring the gains in soil carbon resulting from those practices. This is a crucial step toward monetizing a new agricultural product — carbon capture and storage.

Innovators and investors are responding to the global demand for greater efficiency and productivity in agriculture, while lowering the carbon intensity of food production. The new soil health provisions can help drive that market shift. The result will be a new and expanding Ag Tech sector delivering precision agriculture solutions and a value chain of job creation that begins in laboratories around the country and ends on the fields of rural America.

And while the world focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our fossil-fuel based economy with new energy and transportation technologies that will bring about systemic change everywhere, American farmers can remove carbon from the atmosphere by doing what they already know how to do best — tending the land and feeding the world.