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Aid ‘natural climate solutions’ with bigger USDA stewardship spending, says report

Congress should substantially increase — as much as double — funding for USDA stewardship programs that encourage climate mitigation and help farmers make money from climate-smart practices, said a Washington think tank on Wednesday. At the same time, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee warned against commandeering the USDA’s soil and water conservation programs to combat global warming.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said lawmakers could be persuaded to support climate mitigation when they see the results of USDA-backed trials of carbon sequestration and techniques to help farmers earn payments for sustainable production. “I think there is an opportunity here not only to impact the climate but also to improve farm income.”

The USDA would put up to $1 billion into large-scale demonstration projects through the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership with farm groups, businesses, states, and nonprofits, which is expected to begin operating this year.

Early in his term, President Biden set a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. economy by 2050. He says that U.S. agriculture could be first in the world to achieve net-zero status and that farmers could make money while slowing global warming. Agriculture is responsible for an estimated 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Funding for climate mitigation by agriculture is an unresolved question. Biden’s proposed “build back better” bill includes $28 billion for climate mitigation, headlined by a plan to pay farmers up to $25 an acre to plant cover crops. But the climate and social programs bill is stalled in the Senate. Since last year, key Republican senators have been adamant that the USDA lacks the authority to create a so-called carbon bank to share the cost with producers of buying equipment and goods for climate-friendly farming. Without new funding, Congress might have to shoehorn climate into the 2023 farm bill and shave money for it from other programs.

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a think tank, called for Congress “to jump-start a rapid scale-up of farm- and forest-based carbon solutions” built around voluntary and incentive-based approaches to “natural climate solutions.” In a report, it said Congress should substantially increase — up to doubling current budgets — for key cost-share and incentive programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The report also said that the USDA should quantify the results of climate-smart practices and provide advice and financial assistance to producers looking to participate in carbon or ecosystem markets.

It pointed to estimates that American soils and forests could sequester some 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. “Emerging markets for carbon credits, corporate sustainability initiatives, and new government incentive programs could generate tens of billions of dollars per year in new investment for working farm and forest lands within a decade,” said the report.

“Oftentimes, we run out of money” for cost-share programs such as EQIP because of high interest among farmers, said Saxby Chambliss, a former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The Georgia Republican said money could be shifted among stewardship programs to provide part of the needed funds.

“Forestry is an emerging issue,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat. Heitkamp and Chambliss were named co-chairs of a 20-member BPC task force created in 2021 to study potential farm and forestry solutions to climate change.

At the first House hearing on the 2023 farm bill, Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson said climate mitigation was only one aspect of USDA stewardship programs. “I have to say it must remain the conservation title and not be repurposed as the climate title. … I remain concerned over a rush to implement some of the climate-related proposals through farm bill programs or administratively by USDA before being fully vetted by this committee.”

An example, said Thompson, the GOP leader on the House Agriculture Committee, was the agriculture section of the “build back better” bill, which he described as offering “questionable policies” with a high price.

“When I’m back in my district, I don’t hear anybody talking about climate change,” said Rep. Rick Allen, a Georgia Republican.

Thompson and Allen voted in January 2020 to overturn President Biden’s election.

The BPC report, “Federal Policies to Advance Natural Climate Solutions,” is available here.

To watch a video of the House hearing, click here.

Written testimony by USDA officials at the House hearing is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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