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Senate bill would help farmers get into carbon markets, say backers

Carbon markets and sequestration projects have been employed intermittently and on comparatively small scales in recent decades.

Farmers could combine environmental and economic sustainability through practices that lock carbon into the soil, but it’s dauntingly difficult to enter the carbon sequestration market and get paid for it, said the leaders of the two largest U.S. farm groups on Wednesday. During a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, they supported a bill that would create a helping hand at the USDA.

Under the bill, the USDA would provide information about carbon sequestration, certify so-called technical assistance providers to work with farmers to design and implement projects that produce carbon credits, and certify independent agents who would verify that emissions had been reduced or carbon had been stored in the soil. Backers say the USDA’s involvement would add credibility to the contracts.

“The idea is not new. Carbon markets work,” said Rod Larew, president of the National Farmers Union. Farmers and ranchers “are facing difficult headwinds” from the trade war, low commodity prices, and the coronavirus, said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Our policy … recognize[s] the value of market-based incentive and compensation to farmers for planting crops or adopting farming practices to keep carbon in the soil,” Duvall said.

Still, prospects for action on the bill were uncertain with the campaign season at hand. Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts is “focused on legislation that is set to expire this year,” said an aide. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a sponsor of S3894, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, said a House companion bill would be filed soon by Reps. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, and Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican. The congressional session ends in December and pending legislation dies with adjournment.

Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said S3894 would encourage farmers to “scale up” sequestration practices and make it easier to earn money for doing so. Fifty farm groups support the bill and its focus on voluntary, producer-led practices, said Stabenow.

Carbon markets and sequestration projects have been employed intermittently and on comparatively small scales in recent decades. Farm groups have tinkered with them as a free-market response to climate change, although they opposed the Obama-era cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in 2009 that allowed agriculture to make money by offsetting greenhouse gases emitted by industry. Financial austerity has brought new interest to these ideas on the farm at the same time consumers are asking food makers to specify how they are reducing their carbon footprint, said Chris Clayton, author of The Elephant in the Cornfield, a book about agriculture and climate change. “Time has really caught up with them.”

Jason Weller, vice president of a Land O’Lakes subsidiary devoted to sustainability, said that international consumers increasingly expect U.S. products to be produced in a climate-sensitive way. “We’re concerned about the long-run potential impact on access to international markets and, ultimately, to international food companies,” Weller said. Purchasers, particularly companies with international reach, are serving consumers whose “expectation is that the American farmer … be able to not just characterize the quality of the grain or the quality of the product but also …what system was used to produce that food product. We see … a potential market access challenge.”

Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said carbon contracts could improve a farmer’s bottom line for “something you’re doing already.” Brent Bible, an Indiana farmer and adviser to the Environmental Defense Fund, which supports the bill, said the profit margin for many farmers “is zero, or to be fair, it is less than zero if you don’t include the USDA payments of the last few years.”

Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, a Republican, said he was concerned that companies could hijack carbon contracts and dictate operations on the farm. “It’s a voluntary, private market,” replied Larew. “Farmers have the option to participate or not.”

To read statements submitted by witnesses or to watch a video of the hearing, click here.

For a brief description of the bill, click here.

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