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Secretary Perdue Is Open to Carbon Markets for Farmers, Pingree Says

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue expressed support for carbon markets for farmers during a meeting, Representative Chellie Pingree said on Monday. An upcoming agriculture appropriations bill will likely include language that urges USDA to research the possibility of such markets, added the Maine Democrat, speaking at a Food & Environment Reporting Network event.

“He sat in my office for an hour,” Pingree said of her meeting with Perdue, though she didn’t specify when the meeting occurred. “He was surprisingly receptive, knew a lot about the idea of carbon markets, had a price in his head.”

Agriculture is responsible for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but farms also have the ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere through measures such as planting of cover crops. But planting those crops isn’t always profitable enough to make it worthwhile, especially if the crop can’t be sold. One way that environmental, food, and farming groups have proposed solving this dilemma is through carbon markets, or paying farmers for the amount of carbon they sequester.

“He brought it up, that the USDA should be the place that the standard’s set,” she continued. “Honestly, I was pretty surprised.”

The Trump administration has expressed skepticism about climate change, and the president announced a withdrawal from the Paris climate accord that was designed to keep global warming below 2˚ Celsius. But Pingree said Perdue was open to discussing new carbon market opportunities for farmers as a way to get money into their pockets.

Pingree said that she is working on putting language into an upcoming agriculture appropriations bill that would urge USDA to “research the opportunity for farmers to participate in carbon markets, and what would be appropriate metrics.” A sticky issue is figuring out how to measure soil carbon so farmers can be compensated.

“We talked to [Perdue] about that and he didn’t oppose it,” she said.

In March, a coalition of environmental organizations and food companies announced their efforts to build a market that would pay farmers for carbon sequestration and cleaner water. General Mills, ADM, Cargill, McDonald’s, and The Nature Conservancy are among 10 groups involved in the effort. The program would give farmers credits for their efforts to sequester carbon or protect water quality, and then companies could buy those credits to reach their own sustainability goals. They plan to build the market by 2022.

In her remarks, Pingree noted that few members of Congress have made agriculture, and particularly its relationship to climate change, a central issue. “We’ve been trying to push [carbon markets] with Congress,” she said. “Farmers have an opportunity here. Let’s get them in early and change the dialogue.”

Pingree also noted that literacy among members of Congress about climate change is lower than other pressing policy issues. “We debated repealing the healthcare bill 60 times, or 55 times. Members of Congress are extremely well versed in preexisting conditions,” she noted. “But we haven’t talked about climate change for a really long time. Everybody told us it’s not an election-year issue. Also, we didn’t have hearings or anything else going on. We don’t even know what the current science is for the most part.”

In April, Pingree released a five-point plan to engage farmers around responding to climate change. The five initiatives included building healthy soil, supporting pasture-based livestock, reducing food waste, and investing in rural energy. The plan was released in response to the Green New Deal, which Pingree supports, but said didn’t include “enough elaboration on agriculture.”

Pingree has represented Maine’s first congressional district since 2010. She sits on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, where she serves on the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment.

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