We are at a make or break moment in history, determining whether we marshal the resources to safeguard the life sustaining capacities of our planet or perpetuate systems in place that are harming the land, human health and the stability of the climate. We have a remarkable chance right now to set our nation on a course that is restorative and life affirming.
The 2023 Farm Bill is very consequential legislation which impacts nutrition and land management, affecting what we eat, how we grow food and the very make up of our food system as a nation. As It only comes up for reauthorization every 5 years or so, this upcoming reauthorization presents an extraordinary opportunity to lay out vital priorities and deliver on our most essential principles. We all must decide: do we want a Farm Bill that embraces and fosters life or one that perpetuates our self destruction. Continuing the status quo and supporting a healthy future for agriculture are not mutually inclusive positions.
We can no longer subsidize the perpetuation of industrial agriculture, which generates intolerable pollution, inequities, insufficient profit to producers and instability in the global food system (during pandemics and/or times of war, inflation and other price or market manipulations). Rather we must fully invest in the transition to regenerative agriculture and the advancement of soil health. Regenerative agriculture minimizes pollution by working with nature rather than against it, it honors farmers and ranchers by taking out the middleman and fostering more just earnings and access as well as strengthening the local food system. Regenerative agriculture prioritizes healthy soil which is key to life flourishing on earth. Wendell Berry aptly said that “soil is the great connector…the healer and restorer…without proper care of our soil we can have no life.”
Advancing soil health, fostering inclusivity and embracing organic regenerative agriculture should be at the heart of the new Farm Bill, serving as central organizing objectives for this critically important federal policy.
The New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group conducted a series of listening sessions with farmers and ranchers and diverse community groups around the Farm Bill. The following recommendations reflect the collective inputs and what was shared at these meetings.
Enshrine the soil health principles in the 2023 Farm Bill and design its core policies around fully realizing their wide scale and thorough adoption:
- Minimize harm to the soil → This is the number one soil health principle yet widespread practices are in place such as tilling and the use of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers which fundamentally disturb the soil. The Farm Bill should not in any way subsidize or encourage these harmful practices but instead it should fully support the transition to and adoption of regenerative organic farming. One way the Farm Bill can proactively and holistically care for the soil, is by providing a 100% funding match to all states that establish healthy soil programs thereby doubling their restorative impact.
- Maximize biodiversity → Crop insurance programs should not subsidize monoculture but instead favor diverse farming systems and establish a whole farm revenue protection program replete with insurance policy discounts for soil health stewardship. Conservation programs should be structured to truly improve soil, watershed and ecosystem health. Furthermore there should be soil health specialists with expertise in nutrient density, biodiversity and all the soil health principles at every state NRCS location as well as every soil and water conservation district to work with transitioning producers and local agriculture communities.
- Cover the soil → Federal dollars should not contribute to the preponderance of bare ground but rather we should only have incentives – including cost share – for protecting the soil through cover crops, mulching, compost and the like. The greater percentage of the farm and ranch that is responsibly covered, the greater the federal funding incentive. Every NRCS conservation program including EQIP and CSP should have an increase in its baseline funding overall and should prioritize covering the soil as a vital nationwide objective.
- Plant a living root → Encourage perennial crop production and establish incentives for the growth of a robust variety of perennial native grasses on rangeland and soil health improvement on forest land. The more prolific the living roots and the greater the coverage of native grasses the more productive and the more climate resilient we will be. The water we do get will infiltrate in the ground instead of running off which is why soil health projects should be eligible for Water Resource Development Act funding and increasingly incentivized in the Farm Bill as climate smart agriculture.
- Integrate animals (including bovids, pollinators, beneficial insects and soil microorganisms) → Do not provide federal funding to factory farms and the inhumane treatment of animals but instead incentivize the transition to and the advancement of planned grazing, grass-fed operations and the return of animals to farms. Research, education and grant programs in the Farm Bill should be designed to help transition producers toward holistic management and to support local food systems and infrastructure needs.
Uphold and honor the following priorities of social equity in the Farm Bill in conjunction with investing in the principles of soil health:
- Prioritize access → Let’s design the Farm Bill to advance inclusion and social justice by prioritizing access to land and vital resources for BIPOC communities, young farmers, small and medium sized operations, veterans and other underserved groups including acequia and land grant communities. For example, USDA’s conservation programs should be made most accessible to these underserved communities by providing technical assistance and grant writing support as well as increasing and earmarked funding for these communities.
- Actively listen → Go beyond guaranteeing access to honoring diversity in agriculture by actively listening to and providing policy setting leadership for diverse voices including Indigenous communities who are the founders of regenerative agriculture. In a recent listening session a member of the Navajo Nation said that the Farm Bill is seen by her and other members of her community as a “commodity food program for white people”. She said USDA could change the narrative by reaching out and providing incentives for Tribal Nations to remediate and restore their lands. USDA/NRCS could do this by providing 150% matching grants for all Tribes and Pueblos that establish a healthy soil program on their lands. The Farm Bill should furthermore increase overall funding for Indigenous agriculture and recognize Indigenous practices and land management in the conservation standards, while facilitating greater stakeholder involvement by Indigenous communities and addressing bureaucratic hurdles.
- Make regenerative organic food more affordable → The new Farm Bill should help low income people who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to have more purchasing power at farmers markets and food coops by establishing a nationwide Double Up Food Bucks program—not only will this improve people’s health but it will also benefit producers and boost the local economy.
- Build community → Farmers and ranchers of all backgrounds should be honored for their commitment to the land. The Farm Bill should help unite producers around the goal to be the best stewards and most successful producers they can be by providing innovative research and supporting peer to peer education focused on lowering inputs and transitioning to soil health, organic, regenerative and drought resilient farming and ranching. One example of such a policy is establishing a regenerative agriculture equipment library, in every state, tribe and conservation district, that communities can benefit from collectively.
- Deliver climate justice → The 2023 Farm Bill, and US agriculture in general, should be at the forefront of mitigating the climate crisis and advancing climate justice. There are a number of steps to be taken to achieve this common good. One idea is to fairly design and carefully put in place a system of costs and credits whereby fees are issued for exorbitant and perpetual pollution and tax incentives are provided to farms and ranches that deliver ecosystem services and increasingly minimize and even reverse their greenhouse gas emissions. This exchange would widely spur regenerative agriculture while bringing about more accurate pricing in the industrialized and commoditized food system—addressing externalities in the marketplace which are currently being paid for in the form of imperiling environmental and health costs which disproportionately impact low income and frontline communities, and people of color.
With soil health principles and social equity priorities at the core and center of its policy make up, the 2023 Farm Bill can become a vital conduit for change. By aligning agriculture with nature, centering on soil health and prioritizing inclusivity, the 2023 Farm Bill can help restore public health and the health of the environment. It can help enable producers to earn a good living while also being leaders in solving the climate crisis. If we seize this moment of opportunity, the 2023 Farm Bill can help lead to our collective renewal by building resiliency, engendering a regenerative food system and unifying the nation around a common purpose of achieving enduring prosperity through better relations with the land and one another.