Policy Report: Big federal gains for climate and organic agriculture
By Aimee Simpson
Federal policy often appears unclear and dysfunctional when addressing pressing concerns around climate change and climate-smart food production, such as organic agriculture. Thankfully, 2022 brought some much-needed focus and progress on both of these critical issues in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Organic Transition Initiative:
Inflation Reduction Act:
The name of this new law may seem like it has little to do with climate, conservation, food systems, or anything concerning environmental progress. However, this legislation, which stunned the policy world when it rose from the partisan ashes in phoenix-esque fashion and crossed the legislative finish line, will likely be one of the most significant steps toward meeting global greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals in our lifetimes. Some of the most exciting provisions include:
- Expanding clean energy accessibility—Many of us would love to install solar panels or support zero emission energy production but can’t afford these green-inspired advancements that benefit the broader community but are seen as luxuries. By expanding clean energy tax credits, investing in domestic clean energy manufacturing (i.e., making these items more available in the marketplace), and providing funding for low-income families to electrify homes, more individuals, families and communities will be able to make the clean energy shift.
- Boosting zero-emission transportation—Achieving the U.S. goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires a significant shift toward zero-emission transportation. From a $3 billion investment to help electrify the U.S. Postal Service fleet, to renewing and refining electric vehicle tax credits, the IRA provides an essential surge of green transportation support.
- Addressing disproportionate impacts—We know all too well that communities of color and low-income communities face even greater threats than others from pollution and climate change. The IRA will reinstate the Superfund Tax (an excise tax on common sources of contaminants previously collected from 1980 to 1995) to make industry pay for toxic cleanups. It will also invest in air monitoring and community-led improvement and adaptation projects for affected communities.
- Expanding climate-smart agriculture—While most organic crop producers already practice climate-smart agriculture such as crop rotation and cover-cropping, most conventional agricultural producers need support to shift their practices. The IRA will invest $20 billion to help with these transitions and also invest in additional research to determine best climate-smart agricultural practices.
- Conserving and restoring climate-change-fighting resources—We need healthy forests, soils and oceans to combat climate change. IRA funding will expand protections for old growth forests, restore coastal communities and ecosystems, and improve environmental review processes.
- Enabling stronger greenhouse gas pollution enforcement—Most of the provisions of the IRA are meant to incentivize green energy and climate-smart practices, but a couple key provisions gave federal regulators important new enforcement tools to fight climate change. First, Congress sent a clear message that greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, are considered pollution under the Clean Air Act (CAA) and can thus be regulated. (These changes to the CAA were in response to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA that curtailed the federal government from setting GHG emission caps.) Second, certain gas and oil producers will now face a methane emissions fee of $900 per metric ton. (Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.)
Some have criticized the IRA for its compromise provisions (driven primarily by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)), such as support for carbon sequestration projects, the opening of some federal lands to oil and gas development, and leasing preferences for oil and gas before wind and solar, but for most climate advocates the compromises were worth making.
Organic Transition Initiative:
One of the greatest challenges organic certification and production advocates have faced in recent years has been ensuring that the federal government recognizes organic practices and certification as a necessary climate-smart tool and program in its fight against climate change. In late August, USDA announced the details of its $300 million Organic Transition Initiative (OTI), bringing a strong sense of accomplishment to many an organic advocate.
The program aims to reverse the trend of declining organic certification through three key actions:
- Organic transition technical support—Believe it or not, most organic certifiers aren’t allowed to provide technical assistance and training to the farms they certify, as it would create a conflict of interest. Because making the change to organic farming can be challenging for those used to conventional practices, a lack of mentoring and technical support can mean the end before many have even truly begun. The OTI aims to build out a more robust framework of mentors across the country partnering with local organizations.
- Direct farmer assistance—Organic farming is more expensive, and farmers incur those higher costs for three “transitional” years before earning organic certification and the ability to reflect those costs in their sales prices. It can be tough to weather those three years of increased costs. OTI will include the development of a new (Transitional) Organic Management conservation practice standard through the National Research and Conservation Service (NRCS) and offer financial and technical assistance to producers who implement the practice. This will not only expand the knowledge base of those experienced in organic farming practices, but help support those farmers seeking certification during the less lucrative transition period.
- Organic market development support—Every part of the food supply system is essential, a fact that became more apparent than ever during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. For organic producers, a lack of full-food supply system support has been a challenge since long before the pandemic. The OTI will invest in shoring up some weaknesses in both specific organic markets (think domestic grain and legume production) and the organic food supply chain (think lack of organic food processors and distributors).
These advancements are well worth celebrating as we close out 2022, but there is still work to be done. Look for opportunities through our PCC Advocates emails in 2023 to help shape these significant investments in climate and organic and achieve additional clarity for other policy issues.
Aimee Simpson is PCC’s senior director of advocacy & environmental, social and governance (ESG).