First 100 days: Grand ideals and pocketbook appeal in climate plan for agriculture

On his first day in office, Biden reentered the United States in the Paris climate accords.

President Biden repeatedly described climate change as an existential threat during the fall campaign. Now that he is in office, his administration will rely on the pocketbook rather than the rule book when it comes to agriculture’s contribution to slowing global warming. Voluntary participation by farmers, aided by financial incentives, has been a hallmark of USDA stewardship programs since their earliest days.

The “climate emergency” is second only to the pandemic on the White House list of immediate priorities. In its first 100 days, the administration could launch pilot projects to encourage farmers to sequester carbon in the soil and begin work on databases that quantify the greenhouse gas savings from conservation practices — information that could be useful for launching carbon markets, experts say.

Biden has painted his climate goals for agriculture with a broad brush: “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.”

On his first day in office, Biden reentered the United States in the Paris climate accords. The White House says it will provide details of its government-wide climate plans on January 27.

Already there are multiple proposals for a “carbon bank” at the USDA, though they take different approaches. The Climate 21 Project says the carbon bank could pay farmers a guaranteed price per ton for carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions achieved through improved land management practices. Climate 21 says the carbon bank could be funded by the same agency the Trump administration used to send billions of dollars in trade war and pandemic relief to farmers, bypassing the congressional appropriations process. Robert Bonnie, a coauthor of the Climate 21 memo to the USDA, was appointed on Wednesday to be the USDA climate adviser.

Another proposal says the carbon bank could set a floor price for carbon, allowing farmers to monetize their efforts at sequestering carbon on the private market. Or it could pay farmers for carbon capture and then offset the cost by selling credits on the carbon market to companies seeking to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

A fundamental question in the early going will be how large a role the government will play. Would it pay directly for climate mitigation on the farm or would it play a complementary role to a carbon market or a cap-and-trade system?

“We’re going to lead an effort to create a voluntary climate exchange and … climate policy for farmers and ranchers, and that’s a top priority for me,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the incoming chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

If the goal is speedy action, “a public-sector approach makes a ton more sense,” said farm policy consultant Ferd Hoefner. The USDA already operates several stewardship programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve, that could easily accommodate a climate change component. The CSP pays farmers to practice soil, water, and wildlife conservation on working lands. The Conservation Reserve pays landowners to idle environmentally fragile land for 10 years or longer.

The AGree coalition, which advocates for conservation practices that are also profitable for farmers and ranchers, says the USDA’s role could be sharing information that spurs the adoption of climate-smart practices on working lands.

“Key levers for change include improving data collection, sharing, and analysis at USDA,” wrote AGree executive director Deborah Atwood in a “100 days” essay. “USDA can take several actions to immediately improve its data collection and analysis to further study the correlation between conservation practice adoption and farm profitability, risk, environmental performance, and carbon sequestration.” The USDA could also modify the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program “to explicitly recognize the risk-reduction benefits of conservation investment.”

One potential stumbling block remains accurately measuring carbon sequestered in the soil from farming practices, the basis upon which any payments would be made. (FERN explored that issue in an article last year.)

Tom Vilsack, Biden’s nominee for agriculture secretary, envisions a large role for the USDA. “We can create a whole new suite of revenue streams to protect [farmers] from the vagaries of trade,” he said in an interview this week with the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, a home state newspaper. “Agriculture, writ large, is ready for this, much more than before.”

Agriculture was an implacable opponent of cap-and-trade legislation a decade ago, when Vilsack was agriculture secretary for President Obama. Even the term “climate change” was politicized, leading farmers and proponents to talk about changing weather patterns instead.

USDA initiatives could range from demonstration projects on carbon sequestration to the development of proven standards of carbon capture from various agricultural practices and the creation of markets that pay farmers for sequestration, Vilsack told the newspaper. “He believes,” said the paper, “that he will have significant executive authority” to tap funds from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corp., created during the Depression era with broad power to support farm income and commodity prices. The agency was the spigot for billions in trade payments to farmers as a result of the U.S.-Sino trade war during the Trump administration.

Like Vilsack, the Climate 21 Project advocates a broad spectrum of actions. “The intent to create a carbon bank could be announced in the first 100 days,” as could climate-friendly modifications to stewardship programs such as the Conservation Reserve, the paper said. There is room in the Conservation Reserve to enroll 4 million acres of marginal cropland for conversion into carbon-sequestering grasslands, wetlands, and forests.

When Collin Peterson was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, he proposed a doubling of the Conservation Reserve, to a minimum of 50 million acres. Landowners are more likely to cooperate in climate mitigation if it is part of a program that’s already popular in farm country, he said last year.

Farm groups, ever leery of federal intrusion onto private property, say climate programs must be voluntary, although environmental groups complain of insufficient progress in controlling soil and nutrient runoff under existing voluntary programs. There is also the threat of backsliding whenever there is a boom in the grain markets, prompting farmers to take lands out of conservation programs or to expand onto fragile and marginal lands.

“We just want to make sure that these projects that come forward are based on sound science and market-based, and they all be voluntary for farmers to use,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation. “We understand that those recommendations [for voluntary programs] are floating around Congress today.”

At the AFBF convention earlier this month, Duvall said roughly 140 million acres, or 219,000 square miles, of farmland are enrolled in federal soil and water conservation programs, and that biofuels, such as corn ethanol, “are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 71 million tonnes per year.”

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