Georgia Rep. David Scott, the USDA and the Future of Agricultural Policy

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Georgia Congressman David Scott made history. Raised in a farming family in the segregated South, he became a member of Congress. His life story is one of resilience, hard work and overcoming adversity. He is now chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture.

Drawing on his life experience, Chairman Scott can create awareness of how sensible government programs can help farmers increase their resilience in these volatile economic times.

As Chairman Scott acknowledges, these uncertainties are compounded by climate change, which is promoting extreme and more frequent weather events — droughts, floods, heat waves, stronger hurricanes — that affect farming operations.

Calls for more federal spending to help farmers adapt to climate change are also growing louder, but spending alone won’t protect farmers, the climate — or taxpayers.

As climate-related disasters pose increasing risks to our society and economy, Washington must harness the proven innovation of America’s agricultural sector. Chairman Scott and his colleagues should support reforms that create a stable and predictable farm safety net that promotes economic and climate resilience for farmers while protecting federal taxpayers — that’s you and me.

The US Department of Agriculture should start increasing data sharing among its many agencies. The USDA has a wealth of taxpayer-funded data on the interplay between agricultural conservation practices, crop yields and safety net costs, but it’s scattered across different agencies and appears to be locked away.

This data lockdown effectively locks down valuable information for researchers, government agricultural advisors and producers. Farmers shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel when considering investments in conservation, especially when taxpayers and farmers have funded and tested a fleet of options.

Additionally, Congress should encourage the USDA to promote effective conservation practices, rather than discourage them. Since most lenders will not approve a farm loan without taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, farmers have an incentive to grow cash crops (corn, cotton, and soybeans) even when cover crops would make more economic and environmental sense. While research shows that long-term use of canning leads to more stable and ultimately higher yields, federal crop insurance does not differentiate between growers who have introduced canning and those who have not.

We can begin to make the crop insurance program more accountable by supporting efforts to ensure USDA risk ratings accurately assess the risk reduction benefits of conservation practices. The USDA should also explore innovative financing options for farmers who want to implement conservation but are blocked by bankers and bureaucracy.

The USDA is taking steps to create a new program to subsidize “climate friendly” goods that would come from the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), an oddly named entity normally used to distribute farm subsidies and loans .

However, this proposal has several pitfalls. First, the CCC has a recent track record of politicization and a history of evading congressional oversight, wasting tens of billions of dollars. Second, the new initiative may not mitigate climate change given the potential costs, fledgling carbon markets, and technical complexity of measuring soil carbon. Finally, experts warn that adding more subsidies to the currently broken farm subsidy system could distort markets and breach international trade deals without promoting climate resilience.

Chairman Scott should instead pave ways to reform existing farm bill conservation programs to prioritize carbon sequestration and other water and soil benefits. He can help legislators make bipartisan contributions to these long-term reforms. If the USDA goes it alone and creates a program without input from Congress, the new initiative may be scrapped when a new administration takes office, eliminating potential climate benefits.

With Chairman Scott at the helm of the Agriculture Committee, Congress should reform agricultural and climate policies. Now is an opportune time to enact resilient, climate-friendly policies in an open and transparent manner through the Farm Code and other legislative processes, rather than just the executive branch.

Real progress takes more than dollars, it also takes change.

Joshua Sewell leads the farm reform program at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a bipartisan budget watchdog.

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