The template for climate mitigation is soil conservation, says farm-enviro alliance

Composed of farm, environmental, and food retail groups, FACA was an early advocate of using voluntary and incentive-based programs to mitigate climate change.

The new era of climate mitigation on the farm would look like a beefed-up version of longstanding USDA conservation programs, augmented by a carbon bank that sets a floor price for carbon sequestration and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, said leaders of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA) on Wednesday. “That’s what we’ve modeled it after,” said Chuck Connor, a founding member of the alliance and a former deputy agriculture secretary.

Composed of farm, environmental, and food retail groups, FACA was an early advocate of using voluntary and incentive-based programs to mitigate climate change, with the possibility of income from carbon contracts. USDA land stewardship programs are built on voluntary participation, often with the USDA sharing the cost and providing expert advice on how to proceed.

“This has been a system that has been tried and tested in the past. It’s been pretty darn successful with that cost-share and technical assistance,” said Connor during a panel discussion at a meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. “That’s what we build a lot of our recommendations off of. … I think producers and landowners are going to find it something they’re pretty comfortable with.”

Agriculture generates an estimated 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden wants U.S. agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions. The administration says it will consult with farmers, landowners, and other interested parties to develop a consensus on climate mitigation.

In 51 pages of recommendations, FACA calls for a 10% to 20% increase in funding for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service “to be dedicated for new and existing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions, adaptation or resilience, and soil health efforts.” The NRCS spends about $6 billion a year on land and water stewardship.

The alliance also says the USDA should become a clearinghouse for climate mitigation information and should set up a program to certify agents who would measure carbon sequestration for farmers and foresters who want to participate in carbon markets.

With a carbon bank, “we could set a floor price for carbon sequestration,” said FACA cofounder Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. “So when someone sequesters methane from manure or, in a verified way, carbon in the soil, they know, like other commodities that are produced on the farm, there is a stable expectation of what a floor price would be.”

FACA says a carbon bank would require a “significant increase” in the USDA’s spending authority so that climate mitigation would not impinge on other programs. At present, the USDA, through its Commodity Credit Corp., can spend $30 billion at a time on mandatory programs before having to ask Congress to replenish CCC funding.
Besides cost-share payments or revenue from carbon sales, FACA also recommends creating a transferable tax credit for each ton of captured carbon dioxide.

Iowa farmer Mitchell Hora, who also runs a consulting business on soil health, said climate mitigation practices would also reduce nutrient runoff. “I truly believe it can be profitable for everyone,” he said.

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