There is growing consensus that we need to support farmers to be part of the climate solution. How to do that is a topic of hot debate, with various farm and environmental groups jockeying to set the agenda. Last week, a new collaboration called the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA) released a set of policy recommendations on agriculture and climate change. FACA, which includes the Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund, recommended a suite of voluntary and market-based tools to reduce agriculture’s climate footprint. Although the increasing acknowledgment of climate change is a welcome step in the right direction (especially from the Farm Bureau, which has long opposed climate action), the policy recommendations do not address an entrenched system of industrial agriculture that cannot meet the challenge of the climate crisis in its current form.
This unlikely coalition of food, farm and environmental groups agreed on proposals that completely dodge the need to regulate a polluting industrial agriculture system that is increasing emissions. Although voluntary programs and incentives for farmers are critical, they are not enough to address agriculture’s contributions to climate change on their own. To meet the climate challenge, we also need to address the production and overuse of synthetic fertilizers and the continued expansion of large-scale animal feedlots, which are agriculture’s largest climate culprits.
FACA’s recommendations include strong support for carbon markets, stating that they support “policies that foster the development of private sector markets for GHG credits.” As IATP has previously written, carbon markets will not meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and could have negative impacts on small to mid-sized farmers. 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. Soil carbon storage is also extremely impermanent; any carbon sequestered in the soil can be released with a change in land management practices or through severe weather events. For this reason, soil carbon cannot permanently offset emissions elsewhere like a carbon market requires. Finally, offset projects in a carbon market tend to work best for large-scale farms with enough land to implement practices that would generate a profit from carbon credits, which could further contribute to consolidation in agriculture.
Among FACA’s carbon market proposals is support for the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bill that would authorize USDA to certify private carbon markets and facilitate farmer participation in those markets. IATP expressed concern about this bill upon its introduction; among other problems, it allows verifiers and technical assistance providers to self-certify, raising serious conflict of interest concerns and questions around the legitimacy of the carbon credits that would be generated and traded.
FACA also backs a scheme championed by Robert Bonnie, the chair of President-elect Biden’s USDA transition team, to establish a carbon bank through the Commodity Credit Corporation. The USDA would get into the business of buying and selling carbon credits through this proposed bank by purchasing carbon credits from farmers and selling them into yet to be determined market. The proposal has many of the same problems with offset credits that we have pointed to previously. A carbon bank is also an unproven, expensive and complicated way to reward farmers for implementing climate-friendly systems, especially when we have strong conservation programs that already exist and could reach farmers immediately with deeper investment.
The report’s livestock section recommends incentivizing methane digesters. On most large-scale feedlots, manure is liquefied and stored in lagoons, which emit large amounts of methane. Digesters capture the methane from manure lagoons and turn it into biogas, which is then marketed as a renewable fuel. However, digester projects cost millions of dollars and only work for the largest farms; digester developers say it takes 2,000 cows to support a single digester. Incentivizing this technology 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 and management-intensive grazing.
The FACA recommendations also double down on the current factory farm system by recommending investment in animal biotechnology and genetic management for animals to produce more meat or milk and digest feed more efficiently. These recommendations are expensive, time consuming and risky — instead of patenting life forms, we should invest in a transition to pasture-based animal production that we know is better for the climate.
Despite its problems, there are some strong policy recommendations in the FACA report. Many of the positive recommendations mirror proposals in the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), an excellent bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME). Both FACA and the ARA support existing conservation programs, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs provide stable and predictable funding for farmers to implement conservation practices and should be greatly expanded to meet demand. We also support the recommendation to provide mandatory funding for the National Grazing Lands Coalition, which would boost support for advanced grazing and pasture-based animal production.
The incoming Biden administration has expressed the intention to help farmers be part of the climate solution. In doing so, they should focus on policy recommendations that capitalize on already-successful programs and tackle the industrial system of production. Rep. Chellie Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act and Sen. Cory Booker’s Farm System Reform Act are examples of legislation that would move us away from the industrial system of agriculture while supporting farmers in the transition. Proposals such as carbon markets and methane digesters will only prop up the current system of industrialized production and will not advance the sustainable agriculture we need.