Climate ag bill offers hope for carbon marketplace

Bipartisan bill enlists USDA to establish certification system to help farmers participate in carbon credit markets.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

June 4, 2020

5 Min Read
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“Farmers are very smart businesspeople and will do what’s in their best economic interest. The best solution for sustainability is profitability,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said when asked about a new bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate on Thursday to break down barriers for farmers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets so they can be rewarded for climate-smart practices.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, introduced by Sens. Mike Braun (R., Ind.), Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), creates a certification program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help solve technical entry barriers that prevent farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets. These issues – including access to reliable information about markets and access to qualified technical assistance providers and credit protocol verifiers – have limited both landowner participation and the adoption of practices that help reduce the costs of developing carbon credits.

To address this, the bill establishes a Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider & Third-Party Verifier Certification Program through which USDA will be able to provide transparency, legitimacy and informal endorsement of third-party verifiers and technical service providers that help private landowners generate carbon credits through a variety of agriculture- and forestry-related practices. The USDA certification program will ensure that these assistance providers have agricultural and forestry expertise, which is lacking in the current marketplace. As part of the program, USDA will administer a new website, which will serve as a “one-stop shop” for information and resources for producers and foresters who are interested in participating in carbon markets.

Through the program, USDA will help connect landowners to private-sector actors who can assist the landowners in implementing the protocols and monetizing the climate value of their sustainable practices. Third-party entities certified under the program will be able to claim the status of a “USDA Certified” technical assistance provider or verifier. The USDA certification lowers barriers to entry in the credit markets by reducing confusion and improving information for farmers looking to implement practices that capture carbon, reduce emissions, improve soil health and make operations more sustainable.

Today, many third-party groups are developing protocols and testing methods to calculate emissions reduction and sequestration in agriculture and forestry; the landscape is evolving rapidly. The Growing Climate Solutions Act recognizes this fact and provides the secretary with a robust advisory council composed of agricultural experts, scientists, producers and others. The advisory council would advise the secretary and ensure that the certification program remains relevant, credible and responsive to the needs of farmers, forest landowners and carbon market participants alike.

Finally, the bill instructs USDA to produce a report to Congress to advise about the further development of this policy area, including: barriers to market entry, challenges raised by farmers and forest landowners, market performance and suggestions on where USDA can make a positive contribution to the further adoption of voluntary carbon sequestration practices in agriculture and forestry.

The bill has widespread support -- a welcome sign for a topic like on climate change that often can create partisan divides. The bill has the support of the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Corn Growers Assn., Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s, Microsoft and more than 40 farm groups, environmental organizations and Fortune 500 companies [click here for the full list].

“While farms and forests have been uniquely impacted by the climate crisis, they can also be an important part of the solution. Our bipartisan bill is a win-win for farmers, our economy and our environment by providing new economic opportunities to store carbon while also addressing the climate crisis,” said Stabenow, who also serves as ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“America’s farmers and ranchers have made tremendous strides in reducing our carbon footprint, with overall greenhouse gas emissions under 10% for our industry,” American Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall said. “As we endeavor to do more with less, we are always focused on doing better and working together to protect the natural resources we all enjoy. We are grateful to Sens. Braun and Stabenow for consulting us on their efforts to bring clarity and validity to a voluntary, market-based carbon-credit system and provide a USDA-led review to inspire confidence as we enter the new carbon marketplace.”

“Farmers are vital partners in stabilizing the climate and increasing resilience to the impacts we can’t avoid,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “The Growing Climate Solutions Act makes it easier for farmers to pull up a seat at the table and be part of the climate solution. It enables new revenue streams that pay farmers for adopting climate-friendly practices. Those changes will help drive the U.S. toward a 100% clean economy and help ensure farms and rural communities thrive in a changing climate.”

Marion Gross, McDonald’s chief supply chain officer for North America, said the bill would provide the farmers and ranchers McDonald’s depends on with a clearer pathway for meaningful participation in carbon credit markets. “As we work with our suppliers to achieve our climate goals, carbon markets will play an important role incentivizing, recognizing and rewarding agriculture producers for the significant positive impacts they can quantifiably deliver,” Gross said.

Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, added that carbon markets will play an important role in the dairy sector’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, an industry-wide effort that will require public policy support. “Dairy farmers are environmental stewards who value proactive approaches to sustainability, and this legislation will provide a welcome boost to their efforts,” Mulhern said, adding that the organization is excited to see lawmakers share their goal of a climate-friendly future.

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) CEO Dr. Barb Glenn said, “Enhancing climate resiliency is critical for the future viability of producers, processors and rural communities. NASDA is glad to see Congress working across the aisle to develop solutions that work for the food and agriculture sector. We look forward to continued partnerships with Congress and our federal agency partners as climate policy initiatives move forward.”

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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