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Senate passes first-ever climate mitigation bill for agriculture

Biden wants American agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and has said farmers would see new revenue sources while doing it.

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow was certain on Thursday that the House would follow the Senate in passing the first-ever climate mitigation bill for agriculture. Under the bill, the USDA would help farmers enter the carbon market, touted as the private enterprise way to earn money while combating climate change.

“This is something that President Biden enthusiastically supports and [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack is deeply involved in,” said Stabenow, declaring the 92-8 vote in the Senate “a great victory” for landmark legislation.

Biden wants American agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases and has said farmers would see new revenue sources while doing it. Carbon markets are a commonly mentioned possibility, but there is little consensus on how to capture carbon in the soil or trees, how to measure it, or how to find buyers for the credits created. Agriculture is responsible for some 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Stabenow, of Michigan, and cosponsor Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said their bill, S 1251, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, would clarify the carbon sequestration marketing process. Under the plan, the USDA would certify the third-party agents who verify work by farmers, ranchers, and foresters to capture carbon and help them get paid for the reductions in carbon emissions. The USDA also would set up a clearinghouse of climate-friendly practices as an aid to producers interested in a carbon contract.

“What we are doing is voluntary, producer-led, and bipartisan. And to me, on the Agriculture Committee, those are the magic words,” said Stabenow. Braun said legislation “democratizes” carbon markets by making them available to small farmers, not just larger operators. “Farming is generally hot or cold, feast or famine,” he said. “This will give you a steady stream of income through those lean years, and I think they’ll like that.”

Rather than bring order, the Stabenow-Braun bill “would insert government into a market that is blossoming on its own,” objected Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican. “Though it aims to help small farmers to participate in this market, it could easily be manipulated to demand USDA set protocols and qualifications” that would dominate sales. Lee was defeated, 11-89, when he tried to strip the provision for USDA certification of third-party agents.

Some farm state House Republicans share Lee’s objections to a federal role in carbon markets, even the complementary role proposed by Stabenow and Braun to help the markets grow.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to pass it,” said Stabenow when asked about the outlook in the House. The momentum of Biden’s early days in office for action on climate change has slowed, in part due to GOP objections to a USDA-run carbon bank that could finance adoption of climate-smart practices or even set a floor price for carbon credits.

Dozens of farm, forestry, food, and conservation groups support the Senate-passed bill and a companion bill in the House.

“We have been working hard to build opposition in the House,” said Mitch Jones of the consumer group Food and Water Watch. “This bill would create offset schemes that prop up corporate agricultural interests while doing nothing to actually address the climate crisis.”

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