Last reauthorized in 2018, the Farm Bill remains one of the most significant and comprehensive pieces of legislation affecting American agriculture and rural communities. As Congress prepares to reauthorize the critical legislation again this year, three Duke experts shared insights from their research on how the bill can be strengthened to address pressing agriculture issues, exacerbated by the climate crisis.

Below are the excerpts from the conversation, and you can watch the full briefing here.

The Farm Bill and U.S. Agriculture’s Far-Reaching Impact on Climate

Michelle Nowlin

“In the 2023 Farm Bill, Congress has the potential to counteract the harm caused by certain agricultural practices and ensure that agriculture is part of the climate solution moving forward, and it can also make farms more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”

“It’s really impossible for us to address climate change, or more generally environmental quality in the US without addressing agricultural production, because as much as 50% of the land in the lower 48 states is presently in agricultural production.”

“This is a vicious cycle that contemporary agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions because agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change through drought, catastrophic storms, flooding, increased heat and humidity in many regions, and changing and unpredictable weather patterns that affect planting and harvesting.”

Lee Miller

“Agriculture is one of the only, perhaps the only, major emitting sectors that have at least the theoretical potential to be a net sink of greenhouse gas emissions… these are also systems that are really well suited to helping farmers adapt to climate change, to make to making their farms more resilient in the face of the droughts and floods and disease and heat stress.”

Where the U.S. is Falling Short on Climate-Smart Agriculture R&D Research Compared to Global Leaders

Lucia Strader

“Investment in research is one of the best possible returns on investment that the federal government can make… This funding has really remained flat in the US, and the purchasing power has declined over the past couple of decades.”

“As of today, most of the high-impact papers looking at plant biology and agriculture are coming from labs based in China. And that’s reflective of the dramatic increase in funding that China and other countries around the world are investing in agricultural research as the U.S. is, sadly started to fall behind… it’s important for us to continue this R&D investment through the Farm Bill.”

Investing in Research, Technology and People Through Budget & Appropriations

Lee Miller

“There’s pretty broad agreement that we need more, more investment and conservation, technical assistance… At the end of the day, those dollars [existing appropriations from the Inflation Reduction Act and Farm Bill] have to be deployed in a responsible way and deployed through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). And if the folks aren’t on the ground to help farmers figure out how to put those practices onto the land, then those dollars are not going to be well spent, or they’re not going to be spent at all.”

Lucia Strader

“I’ve seen over the past six months that the extension services from each U.S. institution have started to work more closely together to try to understand how they can innovate.”

Enhancing Agricultural Diversification Through Small and Medium-Size Farms

Lee Miller

“This is a country that mostly, most of our food and fiber is produced on very large monocultures. And we have a pretty good sense at this point that that’s, that’s just not the future that we should all be striving for… we can do climate mitigation and build resilience into our agricultural sector by increasing the opportunities for diversified farms to thrive… One proposal that I’ve certainly heard kind of thrown around is creating an Office of Small Farms within the USDA.”

Supporting Equity for Underserved Communities Through the Farm Bill

Michelle Nowlin

“We need to be directing more support to historically underserved communities through our farm belt programs. USDA and Congress like to refer to them as historically underserved, but I think it’s important to remember that they were historically discriminated against intentionally under these different programs that have resulted in the decimation of rural economies and land loss.”

The Importance of Including Outreach and Farmer-to-Farmer Education in Reauthorization

Michelle Nowlin

“Farmer-to-Farmer education has proven absolutely essential in moving some of the more conservation or climate-sensitive practices out of the research institutions and into the field… But I don’t believe that Farm Bill programs currently fund that type of outreach and education.”

Lee Miller

“In addition to the laboratory research that Dr. Strader is doing, we need farmers trying things out on the field level and at scale. To get them to take a risk like that – is a perfect opportunity for us to come in with public dollars and support that research directly.”

Limitations of Rented Farmland in Implementing Climate-Smart Solutions in Agriculture

Lucia Strader

“One limitation that I see is that so much of our farmlands, particularly for large-scale operations, is done on rented land… There’s not a lot of motivation [for long-term planning] for someone who’s just renting the land to do that.”

Michelle Nowlin

“If there’s a way for the Farm Bill to force longer contracts or to incentivize longer contracts… it can certainly incentivize long-term planning.”

Crop Insurance in the Farm Bill as an Incentive for Climate-Smart Farming

Lee Miller

“Other than the SNAP program, the nutrition program, crop insurance is the major funding that we provide through the Farm Bill.”

“There’s a real chance to put a couple have to use that program to do kind of good climate work. There are all kinds of proposals out there for how one might do that… we the public are willing to subsidize [farmer] insurance costs and to help mitigate some of the risks of the inherent risks of farming. And in return, what we’re asking for are some very baseline practices that we believe will, will both mitigate and help you adapt to climate change.”

Lucia Strader is an associate professor in biology at Duke University 

Lee Miller is a lecturing fellow at Duke University School of Law

Michelle Nowlin is a clinical professor of law and co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke University School of Law