Senator suggests building climate mitigation on USDA conservation programs

U.S. agriculture would be first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases under Biden’s plan to slow global warming.

The government should use USDA conservation programs as the starting point for climate mitigation on the farm and “tread lightly” with unproven ideas like a carbon bank, said the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday. Arkansas Sen. John Boozman cautioned that climate-smart practices may be too expensive for some producers to adopt.

Carbon markets are touted as a new source of revenue for farmers and foresters but they generate comparatively little cash at present, said a panel of industry officials at the online Food and Ag Policy Summit. Truterra, a subsidiary of farmer-owned Land O’Lakes, announced a deal last month in which Microsoft would pay $20 per ton of carbon sequestered in the soil.

U.S. agriculture would be first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases under President Biden’s plan to slow global warming. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the USDA might create a carbon bank to help farmers adopt climate-friendly practices or earn money from carbon contracts. While the carbon bank is the hot topic, USDA climate adviser Robert Bonnie told the farm conference to expect a flexible “suite of tools” to capture carbon or reduce emissions, reflecting the continent-spanning variety of agricultural operations.

“We want to go slow (at first) to go fast in the future,” said Bonnie, who emphasized a desire for bipartisan support for climate programs in agriculture. “It’s going to rely on incentives. It’s going to rely on markets. I think that’s where we’re headed.” For the most part, farm groups say climate mitigation should be voluntary and market-driven.

“I believe we should first work through our existing voluntary conservation programs – which are incentive-based and often provide cost-share assistance – as the basis of any climate-related agriculture policies,” said Boozman, who spoke a couple of hours after Bonnie. He opposed “heavy-handed regulation” and said there were too few details available about the carbon bank or proposals for the government to set operating standards for climate markets. “We must tread lightly here,” said Boozman, who doubts the USDA has the power to set up a carbon bank.

Boozman described some proposals for funding climate mitigation as tantamount to reopening the 2018 farm law, which is taboo in the farm sector. Climate programs should be funded separately to ensure the existing soil and water conservation programs are not cannibalized, he said.

Despite the allure of carbon contracts, “there are daunting realities that stand in the way for most farmers,” such as the cost of measuring and verifying carbon capture and fees charged by the markets, said Boozman. “It often seems the middlemen are doing better than the producers.”

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow is a sponsor of legislation to create a clearinghouse at USDA to provide farmers with information on carbon markets and farming practices that capture carbon, as well as certifying the private-sector agents who would verify sequestration on the farm. “I think Version 2 is going to come out shortly,” said Boozman.

Carbon prices are “really streaky… hit or miss” at the moment because carbon markets are still getting their footing, said Land O’Lakes vice president Jason Weller. “We have to have more consistent demand and larger demand.” Carbon payments are not large enough now to cover the expense of the practices that sequester it. “The good news is there is growing demand for these services,” said Weller, referring to carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions.

Chris Harbourt of Indigo Agriculture said “carbon credit is the cherry on top” of farming practices that build soil health, such as reduced tillage and using cover crops during fallow seasons to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff. Regions with higher rainfall and cooler winters sequester more carbon, he said. Indigo advises producers on how to adapt their agronomic practices, calculates carbon capture and emission reductions on the farm, and markets the credits. Producers get 70% or more of the sale price, said Harbourt.

Farmers can increase revenue by “stacking” credits for carbon capture and for reducing nutrient runoff, said Ben Fargher of Cargill.

“We really don’t know what the value of carbon will be,” said Chuck Magro, chief executive of Nutrien, during a separate appearance at the conference. He mentioned $20 per ton as a price at present but added there was no established market.

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