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Climate mitigation is actually agricultural market development, says Vilsack

The USDA will put a “significant” amount of money into large-scale pilot projects of climate-smart agricultural practices to create new markets for sustainably produced products, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday. In announcing the initiative, which would go into effect next year, he painted dollar signs on his picture of climate mitigation.

“This initiative is first and foremost a commodity program, one that seeks to empower farmers, ranchers, producers, and foresters to produce climate-smart commodities meeting domestic and global consumer demand,” said Vilsack in a speech at Colorado State University. “I want to be clear: This initiative is not a carbon bank [or] a carbon market. It’s not even a conservation program.”

The Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative would provide incentives for the adoption of climate-smart practices on working land and would quantify and monitor the carbon and greenhouse gas benefits resulting from those practices.

Carbon markets are in their infancy, and there are complaints that payments to farmers are paltry once the middlemen are paid. Vilsack said the climate initiative would put a premium on accurate greenhouse gas accounting and instill confidence in carbon markets and sustainable products.

Because the goal is to build markets and promote exports, the USDA can draw on a $30 billion reserve that also pays crop subsidies. Vilsack anticipated that the climate initiative would receive “a significant level” of funding.

Key Republican senators say the Biden administration lacks the authority to create a carbon bank to share the cost with producers of buying the equipment and goods needed for climate-friendly production. A vocal faction of House Republicans favors a hands-off approach to carbon markets, extending to the idea of the USDA certifying third-party agents to verify work done by farmers, ranchers, and foresters to capture carbon and help them get paid for greenhouse gas reductions, or setting up a clearinghouse of climate-friendly practices as an aid to producers interested in a carbon contract. On June 24, the Senate passed, 92-8, a “climate solutions” bill to do both of those things.

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, a carbon bank skeptic, questioned whether it would be appropriate to use the $30 billion reserve, held by the Commodity Credit Corp., to pay for the climate initiative. “I want to make sure that ‘producer-driven’ is more than a talking point,” said Boozman, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. The Biden administration has repeatedly said its climate programs will be voluntary, incentive-based, and farmer-friendly.

Vilsack’s “walk before you run” approach of pilot projects was applauded by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance of farm, environmental, forestry, and grocer groups. The alliance said it was encouraged to see the USDA embrace voluntary and incentive-based projects.

The USDA said it would accept public comments on the climate initiative until Nov. 1, followed by an announcement later this year that funds are available. In early 2022, it would announce the approved project proposals. The program would support farm groups, businesses, states, and nonprofits that work with groups of producers and landowners to apply climate-smart practices. Vilsack used examples of dairy farmers wanting to reduce emissions from manure, corn, and soybean farmers interested in new climate-smart commodities, biofuel companies working on low-carbon fuels, or organic farmers looking to quantify the climate impact of their practices.

Congress is scheduled to write a farm bill in 2023. It was unclear if results from the pilots would be available in time to shape the farm bill.

President Biden has set a goal of reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. Agriculture is responsible for some 10% of U.S. emissions.

Also during the speech in Colorado, Vilsack announced $3 billion in USDA projects, including up to $1.5 billion to help school food programs cope with supply shortages created by the pandemic; up to $500 million for a “robust expansion” of USDA efforts to keep African swine fever out of the country; $500 million in relief for agricultural market disruptions caused by supply chain interruptions; and $500 million for drought recovery and the adoption of “water-smart management practices.”

“This is a giant move,” said the Urban School Food Alliance of big-city school districts. The $1.5 billion infusion “will help school nutrition professionals continue to serve students to the best of their ability.”

A video of the speech is available here.

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