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USDA invites ideas on climate-smart ag policy

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of U.S. emissions.

To carry out President Biden’s goal of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases from agriculture, the USDA said it would accept suggestions through April 30 on elements of a climate-smart agriculture and forestry policy. “This includes making the most of USDA programs, developing new USDA-led climate strategies, strengthening existing markets, and developing new markets that generate new income,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Agriculture is responsible for 10% of U.S. emissions.

“We see farmers making American agriculture first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions and gaining new sources of income in the process,” said Biden when he issued an executive order on climate change at the end of his first week in office. He instructed the USDA to consult with landowners, farmers, conservation groups, and other interested parties on how to encourage voluntary adoption of policies that sequester carbon in the soil and in trees and that produce biofuels and bioproducts.

Under the executive order, the USDA was to submit a climate strategy for White House review by June 26. “We are committed to meeting the deadline,” said a USDA spokesman. He declined to suggest when the strategy might go into action.

Farm-state lawmakers, farm groups, food retailers, and some environmental groups are in consensus the government should pursue voluntary, market-based initiatives with incentives, such as tax credits, to encourage participation.

“Exciting new opportunities to compensate farmers and ranchers for these environmental gains hold promise,” said Arkansas Sen. John Boozman, who also expressed caution last week. “Farmers should not be expected to accept a reduction in yield or to be forced to compensate for that reduction by relying on a speculative new income steam derived from developing greenhouse gas credit trading.”

The USDA asked for suggestions on four topics: How it could encourage voluntary adoption of climate-smart practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; how it could encourage greater use of biofuels and renewable energy; what it can do to decrease the risk of wildfires due to climate warming; and how to ensure climate programs are available to all producers, including socially disadvantaged groups.

Climate mitigation could require sweeping changes such as creation of a so-called carbon bank at USDA that might set a floor price for each ton of carbon sequestration or it might add an additional goal — slowing global warming — to land stewardship programs, according to various proposals. Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow sponsors legislation for the USDA to provide advice to farmers interested in carbon credits and to certify the agents who would verify the results of practices adopted by farmers to lock carbon in the soil.

The Federal Register notice on the agricultural climate strategy is available here.

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