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USDA seeks ways to ‘de-risk’ climate mitigation, says Bonnie

Farmers face significant expenses in adopting climate mitigation practices, and the Biden administration is pondering how to “de-risk those investments,” possibly through a so-called carbon bank, said USDA climate adviser Robert Bonnie on Thursday. “Can we look at some new authorities to create some new financing mechanisms?”

The concept of a carbon bank at the USDA has figured prominently in discussions about how the government could encourage farmers, ranchers, and foresters to slow global warming by sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gases in the soil and in trees. Bonnie, for example, in a white paper, advocated creating a carbon bank, drawing on USDA funding, to finance “climate-smart land management practices” by paying a guaranteed price per ton of carbon reductions.

The bank remains conceptual at present, although Tom Vilsack, nominated for agriculture secretary, said this week that a USDA financial reserve “would be a great tool” for climate change initiatives, such as pilot projects that could become permanent parts of the farm program in the 2023 farm bill or later bills. During a webinar sponsored by the AGree farm policy coalition, Bonnie said Vilsack spoke about “the potential of a carbon bank.”

Whether it’s equipment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from tillage or manure, “these investments have a price tag,” said Bonnie. “We need to think about how do we de-risk those investments for producers.”

The Biden administration expects to move slowly on climate mitigation in agriculture, beginning with two months of consultations with producers and other interested parties before drafting its plan of action. “I think it will be fair to say we will aggressively pursue an effort to get farmer input to make sure that the programs that we design and the programs that we advance are ones that will work out in the field,” said Vilsack on Tuesday.

The funding for a carbon bank and its scope of activities is unclear. The Climate 21 Project, in a memo coauthored by Bonnie, suggested tapping “USDA’s bank,” the Commodity Credit Corp., which can spend $30 billion at a time before needing replenishment by Congress.

“USDA might consider piloting the bank in the first year while soliciting input from stakeholders to improve the workability and effectiveness of the approach,” said the memo. The Climate 21 Project said the USDA could secure approval of CCC funding for the carbon bank from the White House budget office, but it said it was important to build support for the project in Congress, too.

Farmers have embraced no-till and reduced-tillage practices in recent decades; the 2017 Census of Agriculture said the practices were used on about 200 million of the nearly 400 million acres of U.S. cropland. Cover crops, promoted as a way to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff outside of the growing season, were planted on 4% of cropland, or 15.4 million acres, most commonly in states along the Atlantic Coast. In Maryland, 29% of cropland had cover crops.

“States with more cropland acres tend to have a smaller share in cover crops,” said economists Carl Zulauf and Ben Brown of Ohio State University. “A possible explanation is that, assuming all other factors are the same, states with higher urban density tend to have fewer acres of cropland and be more supportive of planting cover crops.”

In the Midwest and Plains, the use of cover crops varied. They were planted on just 1% of cropland in the Dakotas, on 4% in Iowa, and on 8% in Michigan. In a 2019 blog, Zulauf and Brown said climate, soil type, production practices, and government policy played a role. “For example, cover crops are unlikely to be widely used on planted cropland in drier climates where conservation of moisture for the cash crop is a key management concern. Northern climates may also shy away from cover crops due to a shorter growing season.”

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