The report is written by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, which held hearings and solicited comments throughout 2019 and 2020 to inform its recommendations. (You can read IATP’s comment here.) The report calls for legislation to: reduce U.S. emissions to help achieve 100% global net-zero emissions by 2050; stimulate economic growth by spending 2% of GDP annually on climate action, ensuring at least 40% of the benefits from those investments helps communities of color and other disadvantaged communities; and create 10 million new jobs.
The report contains a chapter on farmers and rural communities. Farmers are already facing enormous challenges in today’s farm economy. In addition to low prices, trade war impacts and agricultural market consolidation, climate change is adding another layer of difficulty. As floods, droughts and other natural disasters make farming more unpredictable, we need significant investment in practices that build soil health and farm resilience while sequestering carbon. The report’s agriculture chapter provides some strong recommendations to meet this challenge, but other recommendations disproportionately benefit the nation’s largest farmers and will not help solve the climate crisis.
The report recommends expanding existing USDA agricultural conservation programs and including improved soil health and soil carbon storage incentives. IATP has written extensively on the benefits of USDA conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs, which are routinely over-enrolled, provide financial support for farmers to implement practices on their land that build soil health, improve water quality and sequester carbon. Demand for these programs consistently exceeds available funding, and the money provided by these programs usually does not cover the full costs of implementing the conservation practices. Expanding and improving these conservation programs would make it less risky for farmers to invest in conservation. The result would be healthier soils, farms that are able to better withstand extreme weather events and an increase in soil carbon sequestration.
The report also contains a recommendation to invest in technical assistance for farmers and ranchers as they implement regenerative practices. Expanding technical assistance for farmers is critical; as interest in conservation practices increases, local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff need support to share knowledge and best practices. Despite the importance of local NRCS staff, positions have been cut in recent years and existing employees have increasing amounts of work. Investing in on-the-ground technical assistance will help farmers innovate and implement the practices that will increase resilience on their farms.
Disappointingly, the report recommends facilitating farmer participation in carbon markets. The report states that carbon markets in the U.S. — particularly California’s cap-and-trade program and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — have benefitted farmers by paying them to create emissions offsets. These programs, which are first and foremost meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have not done their job. Low credit prices and an overabundance of credits have led to volatile markets that have not meaningfully reduced emissions. California is not on track to meet its emissions targets, and RGGI has not reduced greenhouse gas emissions much, if at all. Citing these markets as model policies will not put us on track to meet the climate crisis.
There are problems with other types of carbon markets as well. Voluntary carbon markets are emerging, including private companies Nori and Indigo Ag, which are building private marketplaces for carbon offsets. In these markets, farmers are paid for carbon sequestered in their soil, and companies and institutions can purchase offset credits to compensate for their own emissions. IATP has written about why carbon markets will not work for the climate or for agriculture. First, the tools to measure soil carbon to the degree of accuracy and reliability that a market would require do not currently exist. Without measurement tools that are accurate, quantifying soil carbon to use in a carbon market is a guessing game and does not guarantee actual emissions reductions. Second, soil carbon storage is extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or through severe weather events. Third, offset projects tend to work best for large-scale farms with the economies of scale to make substantial money from the programs, raising concerns that corporate investment in carbon markets will contribute to further consolidation of agricultural land and disadvantage small to mid-sized farmers. Finally, these markets allow corporations to greenwash their operations by purchasing offset credits, letting them continue business as usual without reducing their own emissions. We are disappointed to see the Senate report advocate for carbon markets that will not meaningfully reduce emissions or provide family farmers the stable support they need to implement conservation practices.
The report also advocates for increased financial and technical support for methane digesters. On Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), thousands of animals are kept in close confinement and their waste is liquefied and stored in manure lagoons, which emit large amounts of methane. Methane digesters collect that methane and turn it into biogas, which is marketed as a renewable natural gas. Digester projects cost millions of dollars and only work for the largest farms; digester developers say that it takes 2,500 cows to support a digester. Supporting this technology with public money further entrenches the system of factory farming by using public dollars to clean up massive amounts of animal waste rather than avoiding it in the first place by investing in climate-friendly practices like pasture-based production. In advocating for investment in this technology, the Senate report misses an opportunity to support small to mid-sized farmers across the country.
Today’s farm crisis requires investment that will benefit the small and mid-sized farms that support rural communities across the nation. Investing in proven conservation programs and technical assistance, as suggested in the Senate report, can provide stable funding for farmers to build more resilient operations. However, certain policies and technologies, including carbon markets and methane digesters, run counter to the needs of farmers and will only work for the largest producers.