We knew upon coming into office, the Biden administration would do all it could to try to move the needle on climate change and reinsert itself on the global stage’s discussions of how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, one year in, where do things sit today for agriculture on the climate front?
Just one year ago at the start of the Biden administration, I wrote about how the administration would be ushering in a tide shift on climate change discussion. No big surprises for agriculture, and agriculture continues to be seen mostly as a partner in world climate discussions.
Overall, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack continues to be an advocate to ensure that farmers remain part of the climate solution and any actions must avoid regulation and instead be voluntary and incentive-based. He’s pretty much picked up the playbook created by the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance and looked for ways to implement the recommendations, ranging from pilot projects to endorsing the Senate approved Growing Climate Solutions Act which puts USDA in a role to offer technical expertise in the Wild, Wild West of carbon markets.
He continually talks about the carbon market as a way to create a new revenue stream for farmers that creates a higher value proposition. He often mentions establishing markets for “climate smart commodities” and finding ways for farmers to capture the value that others around the world want in a more sustainably produced food product.
On the world stage, Vilsack quickly made sure that as the European Union was looking to flex its arm on how to meet climate goals by dictating to its producers how to produce including pushing organic practice techniques on the world, he created a counter group of nations defending the ability of farmers to choose what production practices would keep them competitive including biotechnology and all agricultural production techniques, not just organic. Vilsack teamed up with the United Arab Emirates to launch AIM for Climate, which also put agriculture at the center of global efforts to combat climate change.
Congress did not pass the Build Back Better bill which would have injected $28 billion into farm bill conservation programs and encourage adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices. However, Vilsack has been creative with the farm bill programs authorized as well as funds provided in recent COVID bills. USDA has looked to provide new flexibilities to encourage actions, such as cover crops, that align with their climate goals.
Vilsack brought on Robert Bonnie to serve as the undersecretary of Farm Production and Conservation and Bonnie’s history of working with farmers to encourage the use of voluntary, conservation efforts that also benefit the environment has been beneficial in looking at creative ways to use USDA funds to do more on the climate front.
Specifically, USDA overhauled the Conservation Reserve Program to improve climate benefits, with producers enrolling more than 5.3 million acres into the program, surpassing a goal of 4 million acres.
While speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation on January 10, Vilsack announced a goal of doubling the number of cover crop acres to 30 million acres by 2030. For an ag sector concerned about the administration’s initial “30x30” pledge of conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waterways by 2030, I think this “30x30” goal is one farmers can more likely get behind to support. In addition, a pilot program in 11 states will invest $38 million to expand incentive to encourage the planting of cover crops in 2022.
USDA’s Risk Management Agency also added a new flexibility for producers to receive 100% of the prevented planting payment when using cover crops and provided almost $60 million to producers to plant 12.2 million acres of cover crops through the Pandemic Cover Crop Program. And corn producers now have access to additional insurance coverage for corn farmers who “split apply” nitrogen to their crops, a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly practice.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service has made specific investments over the last year targeting climate-smart practices. This includes:
- $50 million in 118 partnerships to expand access to conservation assistance for climate-smart agriculture and forestry;
- $10 million to support climate-smart agriculture and forestry through voluntary conservation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program;
- $40 million through Conservation Innovation Grants to help agricultural producers adopt innovative conservation practices and mitigate the effects of climate change on their operations; and
- $405 million through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, including more than 100 projects to address climate change, improve water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agriculture.
However, one of the weak spots in Biden’s climate plan includes a laser focus on increasing the number of electric cars, while not offering the same favoritism for renewable fuels and recognizing the over 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. And ethanol companies have promised to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Looking ahead to 2022
But Vilsack says the work isn’t over yet, and says more is needed.
“Climate change threatens our food security, safety, and the environment we all depend on, but USDA is taking action to respond,” Vilsack notes in an overview of USDA’s actions on the climate. “Working closely alongside our partners and those we serve, we are conserving precious natural resources, supporting climate smart forestry and agriculture, helping agricultural producers make their operations more climate friendly and resilient to climate change, and protecting communities from wildfire.”
USDA announced a 10-year strategy for restoring the health of fire-adapted forests and reducing the risk of climate-amplified wildfire to communities. Using new funding and cross-boundary partnerships, priority will be given to help at-risk communities adapt to wildfire.
USDA says its Rural Development department will continue to strategically focus on integrating climate outcomes into its work by expanding clean and reliable energy generation and increasing renewable fuels production and infrastructure to the benefit of rural and tribal communities. For example, Rural Development will create a new pilot program to support clean energy in underserved rural communities.
As mentioned above in the 30x30 cover crop goal, NRCS will host a new signup to help producers in 11 states mitigate climate change through adoption of cover crops and begin a program to provide incentives for climate-smart conservation on working lands.
Conservation funding took a hit in the last farm bill debate, but USDA has attempted to retarget those funds as well as utilize additional resources allocated in COVID packages. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., says she welcomed the cooperation with Vilsack and his team to get money into the hands of farmers to encourage climate-smart actions.
“This is all about getting the tools to fight the climate crisis into the hands of farmers, ranchers and foresters who are on the front lines,” says Stabenow. “Addressing extreme weather conditions and keeping our food supply and natural resources safe is one of my top priorities as chair of the committee. Secretary Vilsack and his team have been amazing partners in this work and have made sure that the resources Congress passed are getting to the right place.”