Soil and water

Help ‘natural climate solutions’ with higher USDA stewardship spending, report says

Congress should dramatically increase — up to doubling — funding for USDA stewardship programs that encourage climate change mitigation and help farmers make money through climate-smart practices, a Washington think tank said Wednesday. At the same time, the top Republican on the House Agriculture Committee warned against commandeering USDA soil and water conservation programs to fight global warming.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said lawmakers could be persuaded to support climate mitigation when they see the results of USDA-backed carbon sequestration trials and techniques to help farmers earn payments for sustainable production. “I think there is an opportunity there not only to have an impact on the climate, but also to improve agricultural incomes.”

The USDA would invest up to $1 billion in large-scale demonstration projects under the Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership with agricultural groups, businesses, states and non-profit organizations. non-profit, which should start operating this year.

Early in his term, President Biden set a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. economy by 2050. He says U.S. agriculture could be the first in world to achieve net zero status and that farmers could make money while slowing down. global warming. Agriculture is responsible for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Financing climate change mitigation through agriculture is an unresolved issue. Biden’s proposed “build back better” bill includes $28 billion for climate mitigation, leading a plan to pay farmers up to $25 per acre to plant cover crops. But the climate and social programs bill is stalled in the Senate. Since last year, leading Republican senators have insisted that the USDA does not have the authority to create a so-called carbon bank to share the cost with producers of purchasing equipment and goods for climate-friendly agriculture. Without new funding, Congress may have to build climate into the 2023 farm bill and cut money from other programs.

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), a think tank, called on Congress to “launch rapid scale-up of agriculture and forestry carbon solutions” built around voluntary, incentive-based approaches to “natural climate solutions.” In a report, he said Congress should dramatically increase — up to doubling current budgets — for major cost-sharing and incentive programs, such as the Quality Incentive Program. Environment (EQIP), the Conservation Management Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The report also says the USDA should quantify the results of climate-smart practices and provide guidance and financial assistance to producers seeking to participate in carbon or ecosystem markets.

He pointed to estimates that American soils and forests could sequester some 500 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. “Emerging markets for carbon credits, corporate sustainability initiatives and new government incentive programs could generate tens of billions of dollars a year in new investment for working farmland and forest within a decade. “, says the report.

“Often we run out of money” for cost-shared programs such as EQIP because of the high interest from farmers, said Saxby Chambliss, former chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. The Georgia Republican said the money could be transferred between stewardship programs to provide some of the needed funds.

“Forestry is an emerging issue,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, ​​Democrat of North Dakota. Heitkamp and Chambliss were named co-chairs of a 20-member BPC task force established in 2021 to study potential agriculture and forestry solutions to climate change.

During the first House hearing on the 2023 farm bill, Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson said climate mitigation was just one aspect of USDA stewardship programs. “I must say that it must remain the conservation title and not be reused as a climatic title. … I remain concerned about the rush to implement some of the climate-related proposals through Farm Bill programs or administratively by the USDA before being fully considered by this committee.

One example, said Thompson, the GOP leader on the House Agriculture Committee, was the agriculture section of the “build back better” bill, which he described as offering “questionable policies” to a high price.

“When I’m back in my district, I don’t hear anybody talking about climate change,” said Rep. Rick Allen, a Republican from Georgia.

Thompson and Allen voted in January 2020 to nullify President Biden’s election.

The BPC report, “Federal Policies to Advance Natural Climate Solutions,” is available here.

To view a video of the Chamber hearing, click here.

Written testimony from USDA officials during the House hearing is available here.