‘We don’t have a day to waste’ on climate mitigation, says Vilsack

Actions could range from providing expert advice to producers, including giving them guidelines for quantifying carbon capture on a farm, to launching pilot projects that demonstrate best practices for climate mitigation.

U.S. agriculture faces a triple imperative — market, environment, and income — in responding to climate change, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday, his first day on the job. “We don’t have a day to waste on this,” he told reporters while indicating that the USDA will move at deliberate speed to identify and support successful mitigation practices.

Actions could range from providing expert advice to producers, including giving them guidelines for quantifying carbon capture on a farm, to launching pilot projects that demonstrate best practices for climate mitigation, said Vilsack. “To the point that we can potentially establish something like a carbon bank, we should absolutely explore it, and if there are resources available today that we have the ability to use, we should absolutely be looking at that.”

Proponents see a carbon bank as the mechanism for the USDA to pay for climate mitigation on the farm and to set a floor price for carbon sequestration and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The bank would draw on the same pot of money that the USDA uses for crop subsidies and soil and water stewardship programs. The USDA can spend up to $30 billion at a time through its Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) before it must ask Congress for replenishment.

READ MORE: Vilsack brings to-do list as he starts new stint as agriculture secretary

“If there is congressional authority that we need or additional appropriations we need, we ought to be advocating for that,” said Vilsack in discussing the proposal.

Some lawmakers view a carbon bank as a competitor for money now earmarked for crop subsidies or even a vehicle for changing the focus of the farm program. Georgia Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican, said at a climate change hearing on Thursday that he did not want CCC money “moving into environmental programs.” Another Republican at the hearing decried “climate grifters” who would impose higher costs on farmers.

During a teleconference, Vilsack said climate mitigation would address three crucial issues: the impact of global warming on farms and their output; the rising consumer desire for food grown through sustainable practices; and the improvement of farm family income.

“I don’t have a specific timeline in mind” for rolling out climate initiatives, he said, although he stressed it was important to act quickly. Demonstration projects could provide the basis for Congress to modify existing USDA programs or create new ones in the 2023 farm bill. “I see this as an opportunity for us to inform … long-term policies that can advance our efforts on climate.”

READ MORE: Agriculture may be 'first and best place' for climate gains, says Vilsack

President Biden wants U.S. agriculture to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases. “That is not going to happen in a single administration,” said Vilsack. “But the work has to begin — immediately.”

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