By Eric Hansen
With a new administration in the White House and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the conversation on climate change has been moving quickly. President Biden promised to act on climate change and included the agriculture industry in his plans.
Against this backdrop, both the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees have heard hearings on the role of agriculture in climate change in the past month. While these hearings were both wide-ranging, they reaffirmed that this is an issue that will continue to get a lot of attention in the next few years.
House Hearing Overview
February’s House Agriculture Committee hearing on climate change featured a broad conversation about both the impact of and mitigation opportunities for climate change. Committee members asked questions about the impact of natural disasters on agriculture; the opportunities for various practice changes – like cover crops, organic production and regenerative agriculture – and the industry’s needs moving forward. Additional research, technical assistance and broadband were all identified as key requirements for success in addressing climate change.
Committee members and witnesses uniformly agreed on and did not debate the science of climate change and the role that agriculture can play in addressing it. The primary point of disagreement centered on the potential solutions for agriculture. Republican members of the Committee raised concerns specifically about proposals for private carbon markets and a USDA-run carbon bank. Carbon markets allow organizations and individuals to buy credits for carbon emissions reductions or carbon sequestration produced elsewhere, such as on a farm. A USDA-run carbon bank could be a central buyer for these credits from farmers setting standardized protocols and prices.
Several Committee members asked about the role that forestry can play in combatting climate change as well. While there is certainly interest in forestry, witnesses had fewer specifics in this area. For now, at least, it seems the conversation around forestry is much less mature.
Senate Hearing Overview
Last week was the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s turn to hold a climate hearing. The witnesses for this hearing were specifically selected to represent the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), a coalition of farm and conservation organizations that have developed a shared set of recommendations to address climate change.
Similarly to the House hearing, there were no objections voiced about the science on climate change or the potential for agriculture to play a role. All involved also noted strong support for voluntary conservation. However, witnesses and the Republican members of the Committee raised concerns about where the benefits from a carbon market would end up. These individuals, led by Ranking Member Boozman, want to ensure that any value in a carbon market flows to the farmers and ranchers themselves, rather than verifiers and middlemen.
Three other issues gained consideration discussion. First, the role of early adopters – those that implement new practices before any incentives are in place – was regularly brought up. Generally, early adopters are not compensated for their practices because companies wanting to participate in a private carbon market need “additionality,” or rather added carbon sequestered above the current baseline. However, many stakeholders, including NACD, are supportive of recognizing these individuals as well in order to ensure that the practices remain in place and fairly compensate producers.
Second, concerns were addressed about practice-based versus performance-based payments. While many advocates would like to see any compensation be based on scientifically verifiable carbon emissions sequestered, existing conservation programs compensate farmers and ranchers for their practices rather than outcomes. This creates a fairer system from the producer perspective and would lower the cost to the farmer to participate in these proposed programs.
Finally, Committee members voiced concerns that climate-beneficial practices that only focus on carbon might not be appropriate to producers in all regions. Particularly in the arid West, cover crops can be tricky to implement and practices provide a suite of climate-friendly benefits like water quality and quantity benefits and improved wildlife habitat. Witnesses urged the Committee to not automatically preclude farmers from participating in these types of programs simply because their cropping system or soil type won’t sequester as much carbon as others. NACD is supportive of the concept of “stackable credits” where producers are recognized for all the climate-friendly outcomes they produce, not just carbon sequestration.
Both the House and the Senate promised that their hearing was the beginning of a longer discussion on climate change this year. Most member comments focused on solutions rather than debating the existence of climate change which will help these future conversations. In the next few weeks, members of Congress are expected to reintroduce existing climate bills and additional hearings are expected as well.
Over at USDA, the conversation is continuing as well. While there has been concern that USDA would move to make major changes, such as a carbon bank, fast, the focus of 2021 will likely be stakeholder input and internal planning. On March 16, USDA published a Notice of Request for Public Comment to receive stakeholder input regarding climate change mitigation and resilience and what actions USDA could take to address this issue. NACD will certainly be providing the perspective of conservation districts and their role in the federal, state and local conservation delivery system.