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September 30, 2022 Reading Time: 4 minutes

In a move that could only have been conceived and executed by a federal bureaucracy, the Biden Administration, as part of its Inflation Reduction Act, is spending $40 billion dollars to get farmers and ranchers to engage in “climate-smart” conservation practices. On the one hand, it’s not at all clear how printing and spending this money is going to reduce inflation. On the other, it’s even less clear how these conservation practices are going to influence climate change. It’s like throwing two stones at one bird and still missing. This scheme is an exercise in futile posturing, a political theater performance to which you, fair citizen, are required to buy a ticket.

The New York Times reports that the program is “the largest federal investment to date in climate-smart practices,” and that demand for the program far exceeds available funding, with “half to two-thirds of farmers who apply” turned away. No kidding. Demand for the program is inevitably going to outstrip supply, which also inevitably means the pressure to increase the program’s budget will intensify. “Farmers want to do these types of conservation programs,” opines Ben Lilliston, who works at an agricultural research and advocacy nonprofit, “…we need this money and these resources.”

Don’t we all?

This kind of agricultural boondoggle is nothing new. In fact, this is just the latest iteration of the sort of failed agricultural interventionism that got its start in the New Deal. One of the very first acts of Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration was to pay farmers to butcher six million baby hogs and plow under every third row of cotton, all during a time of national hunger. It was the epitome of big-government “Brain-Trust” wisdom of the day, tackling the era’s equivalent of “climate change” (low prices) with heavy-handed policy edicts. What seems extraordinary wisdom in one generation is recognized as ludicrous by the next. And so here we are, once again chasing a government carrot in a collective circle. 

The “Climate-Smart” initiative commends itself by explaining how its programs improve efficiency and conservation. Farmer interviews unfailingly highlight how adjusting their practices to align with government incentives has actually “helped their bottom line.” But if these are all such economically sensible practices, why do they require government incentives in the first place? “There’s a real risk, based on recent history,” says Scott Faber, Vice President for Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, “that a lot of this funding will be squandered.” Well said, Mr. Faber, and I assume you’re in a position to know…

Climate Change Impact?

Risking a nose-dive into another Great Depression is one thing, but at least this is all helping the earth, right? Maybe not. Since climate science is really in its infancy, and climate change claims are generally heavily overblown, it’s safe to bet this program will have little, if any, net effect on global temperatures. Bjørn Lomborg writes that the effects of this new climate law (sorry… “Inflation Reduction Act”) will be impossible to detect in the next fifty years using UN climate models. The Times, in rare candor, says of the “Climate-Smart” program:

…scientists still have not determined just how much and for how long carbon can be sequestered and how to even measure any impact. Nevertheless, farmers, experts, and the federal government broadly agree that these practices confer benefits like improving soil and water health, building resilience against drought and enhancing biodiversity.

So scientists can’t even measure the climate-efficacy of the program, yet everyone is agreeing to go along with it because it feels about right—especially, no doubt, within the departments that are getting bigger budgets and amongst the farmers they are paying to sustain a bucolic lifestyle. 

I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to live on the land—quite the contrary in fact. Most of the principles being incentivized are probably benign. But no sensible voter should embrace coerced inflationary handouts to support other people’s back-to-the-land ambitions. The “Climate-Smart” scheme—a self-licking ice cream cone if ever there were one—cannot stand on principles of collective good or efficient resource allocation. For example, of the $40 billion dollars being spent, $19.5 billion is being spent to prop up decades-old programs that were of dubious benefit in the first place.

The Times highlights Lindsay Klaunig as a poster child for this incentive program. She and her partner bought acreage the Times admits was “ill-suited for farming,” and are now, with “a little help from the Agriculture Department,” enjoying the rustic life on Trouvaille (“lucky find”) Farm (not to be confused with “Travaille”), raising a small herd of rotationally grazed grassfed cattle and making small-batch chocolates on her Appalachian farm. “For Ms. Klaunig, the practices yield practical benefits and adhere to her convictions.” Good for her, I say. She’s clearly not foolish enough to leave free money on the table. The Times likewise admits, however, that “it remains to be seen whether more widespread deployment of such methods—as the Biden administration has sought to encourage—can truly reverse the effects of climate change.” 

Lucky Find” indeed. Far better, it would seem, to have just given the money away to all the roughly 2 million farms nationwide. The $20,000 each would probably have done more for the economy and environment, without adding the deadweight of further bloated government agencies. 

Paul Schwennesen

Paul Schwennesen is completing a PhD dissertation on environmental history and Spanish conquest in the Arizona/New Mexico borderlands. He holds a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University and degrees in History and Science from the United States Air Force Academy.

He is a regular contributor to the Property and Environment Research Center and his writing has appeared at the New York Times, American Spectator, Claremont Review, and in textbooks on environmental ethics (Oxford University Press and McGraw-Hill). He is the father, most importantly, of three delightful children.

Follow him on Twitter @agrarianfree

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