Biden vows to pay farmers to plant cover crops and put land in conservation

The government will help farmers mitigate climate change by paying them to “put their land in conservation” and plant cover crops, said President-elect Biden, providing some details on his campaign call to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The sector accounts for roughly 10% of emissions nationwide.

Climate change is among four priorities for Biden during the transition, along with the pandemic, economic recovery and racial equity. The Biden-Harris transition team describes climate change as an existential threat and says the new administration will lead a global effort “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.”

Biden cited agriculture and climate change during a news conference on Friday in which he called Tom Vilsack, his nominee to lead the USDA, “the best secretary of agriculture that I believe our nation has ever had,” based on his work during the Obama era. “He wasn’t looking for this job. But I was persistent,” said Biden with a chuckle.

“He helped develop my rural plan for America in the campaign and now he will carry it out. That includes making American agriculture the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and create new sources of income for farmers in the process, by paying farmers to put their land in conservation and plant cover crops that use the soil to capture carbon,” said the president-elect.

Vilsack said the No. 1 duty for the USDA in the new administration will be “to contribute all that we can as a department to aid in the pandemic response” by reviving the rural economy and addressing hunger across the country.

“When we emerge from this crisis, we are going to have an incredible opportunity before us,” he said, “to position American agriculture to lead our nation and the world in combating climate change and reaping the new, good-paying jobs that will come from that leadership.”

As soon as Biden takes office, the USDA should declare climate change as a top priority and “re-set the narrative” in rural America by emphasizing the decades-old commitment to stewardship by farmers and forestry owners, says a white paper authored by 150 climate and energy experts. Farm Belt opposition helped defeat the Obama administration’s proposal for a cap-and-trade system a decade ago. A former USDA undersecretary, Robert Bonnie, now the head of the Biden-Harris review team for USDA, was a lead author of the Climate 21 Project chapter on the USDA.

“Given climate skepticism by many in rural America, it is critical that agriculture, forestry, and other rural stakeholders view themselves as USDA’s partners to achieve climate goals,” says the white paper. “We recommend USDA’s initiatives emphasize collaboration, incentives, the historic resiliency and innovation of agriculture and forestry, and the critical role that rural America can play in helping address climate change while creating jobs and economic opportunity.”

The white paper calls for a “carbon bank” at USDA that would “finance large-scale investments in climate-smart land management practices.” The agency would also encourage adoption of climate-smart practices through its land stewardship programs. The funding source for the carbon bank would be the same agency that the Trump administration used to send $22 billion in coronavirus relief to farmers.

The newly formed Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, composed of environmental, farm, and food-retailer groups, says the government should build its climate mitigation platform around voluntary action and “market-driven opportunities” such as carbon trading. The alliance supported a USDA carbon bank as a way to set a floor price for carbon sequestration in the soil.

House Agriculture chairman Collin Peterson says a doubling in size of the land-idling Conservation Reserve to a minimum of 50 million acres would be a straightforward way to achieve climate change goals through a program already popular with farmers. “Land enrolled in the program has helped to keep billions of tons of soil from eroding and sequestered millions of tons of carbon,” said Peterson in unveiling his proposal.

By contrast, he said, farmers are skeptical of other unproven approaches: “You’re not going to be able to sell that to farmers.”

For years after defeat of the Obama cap-and-trade proposal, climate change was a taboo topic in rural America. In those days, Vilsack said he made headway with farmers by talking about how to adapt to the changing climate when the concept of climate change was rejected out of hand.

The Climate 21 Project’s transition memo for the Agriculture Department is available here.

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