March 5, 2021
Energy and momentum to address the climate crisis is building under the Biden-Harris Administration. Many parts of the agriculture sector, previously opposed to climate action, have shifted their stance as agricultural soils come into focus as potentially powerful carbon sinks – and source of profit. Legislators, farm groups, advocates, and corporations have been churning out proposals to engage and compensate farmers and ranchers for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in their soils. Many of these proposals emphasize carbon markets and offsets as a silver bullet solution for farmers’ involvement in climate mitigation. However, the rush to carbon markets may be premature as carbon sequestration is complex and actions taken now could have far-reaching impacts on how we support farmers working to improve the sustainability of their operations and address the climate crisis.
While carbon markets are tempting—they could create new revenue streams for farmers and ranchers hurting after years of low prices without increasing public spending—relying solely on these markets will not provide the support and incentives needed to help farmers transition to a more resilient climate future. Carbon markets should not be a substitute for strong federal programs that bolster the practices and people already in place that have been committed to “doing the work” for years.
The Biden-Harris Administration’s Executive Order, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (E.O. 14008) emphasizes a multifaceted approach to address the complexity of the climate crisis. Outlined in the Executive Order are:
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) praises the Administration’s efforts to include feedback from stakeholders most impacted by USDA programs. Their input will help USDA create climate solutions that are robust, equitable, and that directly serve those working on the ground and guide USDA as they join other agencies to implement an ‘whole of government’ response to the climate crisis. Farmers and ranchers are ready to do their part to address and help reverse the climate crisis by implementing climate stewardship practices and systems, but they will need resources – including programs that pay them for the full range of environmental benefits they provide, research to develop and demonstrate more sustainable production systems, and technical assistance to help them adopt these new systems – if they are to succeed.
Last fall, NSAC delivered a letter signed by over 2,100 farmers and ranchers from across the country to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The letter urges Congress to make farmers and ranchers central in any major climate change legislation moving forward. After decades of witnessing how climate change has impacted their operations and livelihoods, farmers signed the letter to demonstrate their commitment to adapt to and mitigate climate change through climate-stewardship practices such as cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, soil health conservation, grasslands management, and more. To reinforce their commitment, NSAC submitted comments to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, and to USDA on its Agricultural Innovation Agenda emphasizing ways that legislators and USDA can improve upon and expand existing programs to better equip farmers and ranchers in their efforts to be part of the solution to the climate crisis.
NSAC also shared a set of policy recommendations with the Biden-Harris Transition Team to provide the Administration with opportunities to modify and improve existing programs as they work to create a more equitable and resilient system of agriculture. Embedded in all these recommendations is racial equity as a core tenet in future program design and implementation. This includes recommendations to enhance the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and the Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP), as well as doubling funding for conservation planning and program applications support, expanding technical assistance, and increasing outreach and set asides for farmers and ranchers of color and other historically underserved producers.
The recommendations are also designed to help USDA leadership harness CSP as the agency’s premier climate program and further align CRP as a climate and water quality program. It contains points on how USDA can better align crop insurance Good Farming Practices to better support conservation and accelerate the adoption of cropping management plans to build soil health. We also recommend the agency create a Soil Health and Greenhouse Gas Federal Advisory Committee to ensure all USDA conservation programs align in supporting farmer and rancher efforts to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Finally, NSAC also recommends that the agency coordinate research programs, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program, to develop and test methodologies that can quantify and document carbon sequestration, greenhouse gas reduction, soil carbon and nitrogen dynamics resulting from soil health and other conservation activities. Increased investments in sustainable agriculture, soil health, and climate mitigation research are critical to ensure that American farmers have the tools they need to become more resilient, productive, and sustainable.
We need to drop the fallacy of a silver bullet solution to the climate crisis. To meet the urgency of the climate crisis, we must take a farmer-focused approach that uplifts the work of those farmers, ranchers, land stewards, and foresters who are already working to mobilize around the climate crisis, prioritize expanding and improving existing conservation programs, and continue to innovative, design, and implement new sustainability practices and technologies. NSAC looks forward to working with legislators, the Biden-Harris Administration, and USDA leadership to expand and improve conservation programs, agricultural research, and rural development programs that are farmer-driven and have a proven track record of success.