Biden nominates USDA climate adviser to oversee farm supports

Robert Bonnie, named USDA climate adviser on the same day President Biden took office, will soon be in charge of all farm support programs, from land stewardship to farm subsidies and crop insurance.

Robert Bonnie, named USDA climate adviser on the same day President Biden took office, will soon be in charge of all farm support programs, from land stewardship to farm subsidies and crop insurance, if confirmed by the Senate. Biden nominated Bonnie for undersecretary for farm production and conservation, arguably the highest-profile sub-cabinet post at USDA, on Friday.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Bonnie, in the expanded role, will look for markets for U.S. crops and livestock while preparing American agriculture “to lead the world in climate-smart agricultural practices.” As undersecretary, Bonnie would oversee $10 billion to $15 billion a year in direct payments to farmers and ranchers, and possibly much larger amounts if climate mitigation becomes a major federal initiative.

The White House was expected to announce climate goals this week as part of an international online summit that starts Thursday, Earth Day.

“He is one of the nation’s foremost authorities and leaders on working-lands approaches to conservation and incentive-based climate and conservation practices for farmers, ranchers, foresters, and landowners,” said Vilsack in applauding the nomination. “Robert will be committed to working with U.S. farmers and landowners to help feed Americans and the world and make climate-smart practices work for them in a market-oriented way — a way that creates new streams of income, a cleaner energy future, and a biobased manufacturing revolution.”

Farm groups generally say climate mitigation would be voluntary and market-driven, possibly aided by federal incentives to help producers bear the cost of new operating practices or USDA databases and expert advice on successful methods. Bonnie was part of a think tank project that recommended a “carbon bank” at the USDA to speed adoption of climate-friendly farming. While the bank has become a hot topic, Bonnie told a farm conference last month to expect a flexible “suite of tools” to capture carbon or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and stressed his desire for bipartisan support for climate programs in agriculture.

“It’s going to rely on incentives, it’s going to rely on markets. I think that’s where we’re headed,” he said.

The largest U.S. farm group congratulated Bonnie on the nomination. “We hope he will remain fully engaged with farmers and ranchers in his new role,” said president Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation. The American Soybean Association said Bonnie has a solid background, having served at the USDA during the Obama years. Said ASA president Kevin Scott, “We respect Bonnie’s accessibility and responsiveness to us as farmers.”

If confirmed, Bonnie would be in charge of the Farm Services Agency (FSA), which oversees farm subsidies and the 20.8-million-acre Conservation Reserve; the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), with its portfolio of land stewardship programs; and the Risk Management Agency, which supervises the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program. The FSA and NRCS have hundreds of local offices across the country.

During President Obama’s second term, Bonnie was undersecretary for natural resources, with a portfolio that included the NRCS and the U.S. Forest Service. A reorganization in the early days of the Trump administration moved NRCS under the jurisdiction of the renamed undersecretary for farm production and conservation.

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