OMAHA (DTN) -- The Biden administration made the case at the COP 26 conference in Scotland that agriculture and forestry can provide a solution for mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions by incentivizing farmers to sequester carbon. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack highlighted the administration's goals to lower emissions from farming and ranching during a panel discussion at the conference Friday.
The Biden administration's focus on agricultural emissions and potential for revenue from carbon markets at COP 26 (United Nations Conference of the Parties, the 26th event) was directed as much at U.S. farmers as it was at international groups focused on climate change.
Climate change is not a future threat, but a current one, for farmers, Vilsack said during the panel discussion Friday. Droughts, extreme heat, wildfires, and other severe weather affect the ability to produce food, fiber and fuel, he said. "Agriculture is one of the sectors most vulnerable to changes we've already seen in our climate."
Vilsack said agriculture can not only adapt to increasing threats but also help mitigate climate change by reducing emissions and sequestering carbon. The secretary then plugged the climate-smart agricultural programs and boosts for forestry in the Build Back Better reconciliation bill in the House.
"It will support sequestering carbon and reducing emissions, and at its peak, the increased investments in climate-smart agriculture could alone reach roughly 100 million crop acres each year, representing activity on as many as 200,000 farms in America," Vilsack said.
The secretary highlighted a pilot project in which USDA has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to develop climate-smart agriculture and forestry that USDA announced at the end of September. The project will finance the production of "climate-smart commodities" through pilot projects and demonstration projects that will lead to ecosystem markets such as selling carbon credits.
Vilsack later told reporters that with the right data and standards, producers could market products certified as climate-smart commodities much like the current USDA organic label.
"I think it would be beneficial for American farmers if we had basically a standardized approach towards what a sustainably produced or climate-smart commodity actually consists of. What practices lead up to the ability for someone to be able to say this is a climate-smart commodity?"
To do that, the secretary said, requires a significant amount of data on conservation practices and the results of those practices from an environmental standpoint. With that, USDA is "doubling down" on research and technical training for climate-smart agriculture and forestry, he said.
"We believe at the end of the day, we can benefit farmers, we can benefit consumers and we can benefit our planet," the secretary said.
Vilsack held a panel discussion in Glasgow with a handful of the groups involved in the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA), a coalition of agricultural and environmental groups that got together to recommend steps USDA should take to work on voluntary climate programs. Among the members are the National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund and the National Council for Farmers Cooperatives, to name a few of the groups.
Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, said on the panel that FACA is focused on climate programs that are "voluntary, incentive-based and also rooted in science." Larew said policies on climate-smart practices should help farmers understand how voluntary markets work. Larew also said the challenges that struck the U.S. agriculture and food supply chain during the pandemic reflect how disruptive climate change also could be to resiliency.
"What we saw during that disruption is a lack of resiliency in the food system, a breakdown in the supply chain that ultimately ended up hurting not only the farmers on one end, but consumers on the other," Larew said.
A big incentive for some of the companies selling carbon credits is the collection of that data and being able to market and use that data. "But from a farmer's perspective, I think that privacy and some of the key elements of these markets is bringing some stability to what those protocols are. That is part of the challenge right now," Larew said.
Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, a board member for Solutions from the Land and veteran of seven COP conferences, said farmers are willing to embrace "sustainable intensification" to look at ways to increase productivity and manage their risks. Farmers continue to adapt to climate change, and Yoder said he expects they will continue to do so. But reducing emissions requires market incentives that will spur producers to get on board.
"I'm a carrot guy. Farmers respond to carrots and incentives rather than regulations," Yoder said. "That's (regulations) not what we want. We want to make sure that we move the needle. That's really what we want to do."
Callie Eideberg, director of government relations for the Environmental Defense Fund, talked about a "methane moonshot," which translates into increasing research and development to lower emissions from livestock. She pointed to work already done to reduce emissions in feed. Eideberg said R&D are areas where USDA can play a key role, as well as providing technical solutions and data to help farmers implement climate-smart practices.
"That is a really good role for government in this space," Eideberg said.
Ben Fargher, vice president and managing director for sustainability at Cargill, said a carbon program or credit for farmers should be easy to access, low cost, offer digital tools and be transparent on the price for carbon, what a contract looks like, and how and when farmers will get paid.
Talking to reporters afterward, Vilsack said the conservation and forestry provisions and funds in the Build Back Better Act would "add rocket fuel" to USDA's climate initiatives by allowing USDA to move more aggressively. The bill includes nearly $28 billion for USDA's major conservation programs and $40 billion for forestry initiatives.
Other keys to dealing with climate change also are tied into the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the secretary said.
"We don't have the infrastructure, the transportation infrastructure, the broadband, that will allow us to be more profitable, to be able to get product more quickly, more efficiently, less expensively, or to be able to have real-time information and access to markets by virtue of broadband," Vilsack said. "We don't have that today."
The DTN Ag Summit will have a panel discussion focusing on carbon markets for producers. Find out more about ag policy issues, weather outlooks, cybersecurity and other topics at the DTN Ag Summit, Dec. 5-7, in Chicago. Visit www.dtn.com/agsummit for more details about the summit and to register. Register before Nov. 26 for the early bird rate.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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