‘You cannot do climate on the backs of the American farmer’

The government spends from $10 billion to $15 billion a year on farm supports, including up to $8 billion on crop and dairy subsidies and around $6 billion for land stewardship.

Farmers expect to be paid for climate mitigation but not at the expense of the traditional farm subsidies, said the president of the largest U.S. farm group during a discussion of President Biden’s goal of an agriculture sector that achieves net-zero emission of greenhouse gases by 2050. Other ag leaders on the panel organized by USDA agreed there must be a financial payoff for the voluntary, incentive-based practices espoused by the administration to succeed.

The leaders spoke at USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum on Friday, a day after USDA climate adviser Robert Bonnie said there was “actually a lot of alignment” between land and water stewardship practices popular among farmers and climate-smart steps envisioned by the White House. “A lot of these practices, while they may be good, aren’t always free or they require some investment or they require some new knowledge,” said Bonnie. “And I think that’s where policy potentially can be important.”

Agriculture generates roughly 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases. The administration says it will consult with farmers, landowners, and other interested groups to find consensus on voluntary climate mitigation. Biden has said the government will pay farmers to “put their land in conservation and plant cover crops,” Bonnie said on Thursday. “We don’t want to replace or compete with private investment.” Carbon contracts that pay farmers, ranchers, and foresters for locking carbon in the soil or trees are a potential private source of revenue for climate action, although they are in their infancy.

The government spends from $10 billion to $15 billion a year on farm supports, including $7 billion to $8 billion on crop and dairy subsidies and around $6 billion for land stewardship. Climate mitigation on the farm could require a federal contribution, possibly creating a squeeze on existing programs unless new funding is provided.

“You cannot do climate on the backs of the American farmer,” said Chuck Connor, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “They just simply don’t have the resources for that.” Krysta Harden, head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, concurred — “It’s got to make sense.” Connor and Harden are former USDA deputy secretaries.

Farm country opposition was a prominent factor in the defeat a decade ago of a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change. While agriculture wants to be part of climate discussions this year, there is anxiety among farmers because there are few clear signals of the outcome, said President Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest farm group.

“Is it going to take away from my Title I programs [crop subsidies] that we have in the farm bill, [are] the funds going to climate change?” said Duvall, paraphrasing farmers’ concerns. “Surely not. The farm bill is so important to our farmers in rural America and … they have a fear there.”

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, the second-largest farm group, said NFU members “certainly expect it will be voluntary and incentive-based.” Growers are enthusiastic about acting on climate change, he said, citing a carbon credit program offered a decade ago by the short-lived Chicago Climate Exchange and also broad support for land stewardship programs.

“It’s often a matter of making sure the resources are there, that we are enhancing these programs,” said Larew.

Connor, Duvall, and Larew are members of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a coalition of  farm, environmental, and food retailer groups that favor voluntary action, aided by incentives such as tax breaks and free-market solutions such as carbon trading.

In his remarks at the Outlook Forum, Bonnie said federal policy could help create new markets for farmers. “And we can look at a range of policy options, whether it’s our farm bill programs, thinking about new creative uses of existing authorities, whether it’s a carbon bank, or otherwise, or thinking about how we encourage wood products in the forestry sector.”

Bonnie was co-author of a white paper by the Climate 21 Project that advocated a USDA carbon bank that would finance climate-smart practices. A carbon bank would pay a guaranteed minimum price for each ton of carbon sequestered or reduction in emissions, said the white paper.

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