President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Robert Bonnie, who serves as climate advisor for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to become USDA undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation.
Bonnie's current title is deputy chief of staff at USDA and senior advisor for climate. He was an early part of the Biden transition team at the department and has served as the point person in working on ways for agriculture to sequester carbon in the soil and reduce emissions from production. Bonne also served with Vilsack as an advisor in the Obama administration and was undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment.
Vilsack said he was grateful for Biden nominating Bonnie to serve as undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation, a position that will require a Senate confirmation.
“He is one of the nation's foremost authorities and leaders on working lands approaches to conservation and incentive-based climate and conservation practices for farmers, ranchers, foresters and landowners,” Vilsack said. “Under Robert's steady hand, America's farmers, ranchers, producers and landowners will see renewed focus on building and maintaining markets at home and abroad and preparing our food and agricultural community to lead the world in climate-smart agricultural practices. Robert will be committed to working with U.S. farmers and landowners to help feed Americans and the world and make climate smart practices work for them in a market-oriented way--a way that creates new streams of income, a cleaner energy future and a bio-based manufacturing revolution.”
Dubbed FPAC, agencies that fall under Farm Production and Conservation include the Farm Service Agency for commodity programs and the Conservation Reserve Program; the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which handles other conservation programs such as the Conservation Stewardship Program; and the Risk Management Agency, which oversees crop insurance.
Bonnie is among those in the department who have advocated using the Commodity Credit Corp. establish a carbon bank. He was also a lead author on a series of transition memos dubbed the Climate 21 Project detailing actions USDA should take on climate.
He would replace former Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who served as the FPAC undersecretary during the Trump administration.
Besides his work at USDA, the White House background on Bonnie highlighted he also was vice president for land conservation for the Environmental Defense Fund where he focused on developing incentives to reward farmers, ranchers and forest owners for stewardship activities on private lands. At EDF, Bonnie helped develop the Safe Harbor program and other incentive-based approaches to endangered species conservation. Bonnie has master degrees in forestry and environmental management from Duke University. He grew up on a farm in Kentucky and now lives in Virginia.
Bonnie told DTN in January that any climate incentives built at USDA will need to have support from the agriculture and forestry industries, as well as landowners and producers. Key elements in that include outreach, he said. “We want to work alongside producers and landowners and make sure these things not only deliver climate benefits, but do it in a practical way that is a benefit for the producers,” Bonnie said.
Bonnie also told DTN at the time that it is important to have an array of a programs and financial support to help farmers work climate resilience and adaptation. “Part of our job is to create a toolbox that producers can draw on because everyone has got different needs,” he said.
After the White House announcement of Bonnie's nomination, the American Soybean Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation both issued statements supporting Bonnie.
Kevin Scott, soybean farmer from Valley Springs, South Dakota, and ASA President said, “Bonnie has a solid background, having overseen NRCS under the Obama Administration and most recently serving as Secretary Vilsack's chief climate adviser. We have appreciated his public service in support of agriculture, and we respect Bonnie's accessibility and responsiveness to us as farmers. Just recently, he joined ASA virtually for a conversation during our March board meetings, and we've consistently seen this willingness on his part to connect with farmers. We look forward to working with him in this new role after his confirmation.”
Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said Bonnie's experience at USDA “has given him firsthand knowledge of the challenges facing America's farmers and ranchers. We appreciate his outreach and engagement with Farm Bureau during his tenure with the Biden administration and we are hopeful he will remain fully engaged with farmers and ranchers in his new role.
“We look forward to the nomination process and we hope to build on our relationship with Robert to ensure farm, crop and conservation programs allow farmers and ranchers to continue putting food on tables across the country.”
Farm Bureau also issued a separate statement shortly later calling on members of Congress to work in a bipartisan way when it comes to climate change. Duvall cited the introduction of several bills on Friday on climate change.
“AFBF appreciates efforts by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to address the issue of climate change while protecting America's farmers and ranchers. It's important that the people who will be affected most by climate policies be involved and respected in the process,” Duvall said.
He added, “We encourage lawmakers to find bipartisan solutions that preserve our natural resources while ensuring farmers have the opportunity to continue producing healthy, affordable food for our nation and the world.”
Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee earlier in the day also announced a package of five climate bills that Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., ranking member of the committee, dubbed as “natural solutions” to the issue.
“Agriculture Republicans are crafting innovative climate solutions by empowering the original stewards of our land -- our farmers, ranchers, and foresters,” Thompson said in a news release.
“These thoughtful, science-based policies will help promote a stronger agriculture economy by growing climate-friendly innovations that are already being carried out by producers,” he said.
“We cannot sacrifice a healthy economy for a healthy environment, and vice versa. Natural solutions work, and we know producers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
“This is an initial slate of ideas to improve the productivity of America's agricultural sector while reducing our carbon footprint, and we will be rolling out more proposals during the Congress. I look forward to discussions with stakeholders in the private sector, our colleagues in the Biden Administration, and Members on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate to build on these proposals and move them forward,” Thompson said. Thompson also said there is no need for immediate must-pass legislation on climate in agriculture and that climate legislation is “not a destination but a journey.”
The Republicans welcome producer reaction to these proposals, he added.
Republicans pitched their package of bills as an alternative for the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill developed by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind.
USDA has been soliciting comments on how to implement President Joe Biden's executive order to tackle climate change. The comment period closes at end of April, The Federal Register notice on USDA's request for comments on tackling climate change. https://www.federalregister.gov/…
House Agriculture GOP release on its members' climate-related bills: https://republicans-agriculture.house.gov/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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