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Is the USDA’s spending on ‘climate-smart’ farming actually helping the climate?

America's farms don't just run on corn and cattle. They also run on cash from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Every year, the USDA spends billions of dollars to keep farmers in business. It hands out money to balance fluctuations in crop prices; it provides loans for farmers who want to buy livestock or seeds; and it pays growers who lose crops to drought, floods, and other extreme weather.

The agency is also now giving money — including $20 billion that Congress earmarked two years ago in the Inflation Reduction Act — to farmers trying to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and store carbon in the soil, a key part of the Biden administration's goal to cut the 10 percent of the country's emissions generated by agriculture. That windfall of climate-smart farm funding has been widely lauded by climate activists and researchers.

But exactly how the USDA spends that money is more complicated — and contentious — than it might appear, and not simply because Republicans in Congress have threatened to siphon the funds away. A new report from the Environmental Working Group says that more than a dozen of the farming practices that the USDA recently designated as "climate-smart"— including several of the highest-funded ones — don't actually have proven climate benefits. That finding is especially important, according to the group, because the USDA is likely to spend more money on the same practices in the years to come: Much of the $20 billion authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act has yet to reach farmers' pockets.

Supporting farming techniques with uncertain benefits "undermines potentially real reductions in emissions," said Anne Schechinger, author of the report and Midwest director at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental research and advocacy organization. "If these unproven practices stay on the list, then a lot of money will go to these practices that likely aren't going to reduce emissions."


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