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Unlikely bedfellows unite on ag climate policy

TAGS: Policy
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Food chain and environmental groups offer united voice on how to best mitigate climate impacts.

While the world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, behind-the-scenes work by a small but diverse group of members of the food supply chain began to evaluate if there are enough shared goals and beliefs on climate policy to offer a unified voice for those in agriculture.

In the past, climate legislation has failed largely because the agriculture and forestry industries weren’t unified and didn’t have a seat at the table. In an effort to correct that, the Food & Agriculture Climate Alliance (FACA) was formed in February 2020 by four groups that now co-chair the alliance: American Farm Bureau Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and National Farmers Union. The alliance has since expanded to include FMI – The Food Industry Assn., National Alliance of Forest Owners, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture and The Nature Conservancy.

The group developed more than 40 recommendations based on three principles: agricultural and forestry climate policies must be built upon voluntary, incentive-based programs and market-driven opportunities; they must promote resilience and adaptation in rural communities, and they must be science-based.

Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he’s proud to have broken through historic barriers and be part of a stronger, collective voice in the increasing discussion on climate impacts. “It was important to me to reject punitive climate policy ideas of the past in favor of policies that respect farmers and support positive change. Our final recommendations do just that.”

The policy recommendations cover six areas of focus: soil health, livestock and dairy, forests and wood products, energy, research and food loss and waste.

Barb Glenn, president and CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, said all of the members understand that the climate is changing and that momentum has been growing for quite some time in Congress and within the private sector, with much of the discussion stimulated by consumers. “Our members wanted to be part of that conversation, and we are much more powerful together than anyone of us could accomplish alone,” Glenn said.

Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and FACA co-chair, said the focus is on what unites those in the group, which is detailed in the 28 pages of recommendations they all could embrace.

Livestock policies

A substantial share of blame for emissions falls on the livestock sector, yet the livestock industry has a great story to tell. Just look at the dairy sector and its net-zero carbon policy, Conner said. The group’s recommendations include incentive-based approaches focused on manure management, feed, nutrition and genetics and pasture/grazing management practices.

Specifically, the policy calls for coordination to deploy anerobic digestors and for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide technical assistance to update conservation practices.

Changes in feed composition can directly or indirectly reduce methane emissions resulting from enteric fermentation in ruminant livestock. Improved genetics that support digestive efficiency and productivity can also contribute to reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate resilience. Innovative technologies with the potential to reduce enteric emissions often face regulatory roadblocks preventing or delaying market approval. Incentives are necessary to offset the risk a farmer faces by changing feed rations, testing new feed additives or making changes to their breeding/herd genetics.

On average, the Food & Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine takes three to five years to review an animal food ingredient. According to a study by Informa Economics, companies lose $1.75 million per year in revenue while they wait for approval. The policy calls for expedited FDA feed additive approvals and prioritizing additives that have climate and digestive efficiency benefits.

Improvement of animal genetics, including animal biotechnology, will also be a critical aspect to helping livestock producers around the world adapt to a changing climate. It is important to note that, while these technologies can improve animal genetics to develop resilience, they can also help reduce emissions.

Strong policy behind actions

Rob Larew, FACA co-chair and president of the National Farmers Union, said, “Climate change is adding another enormous variable to the already unpredictable work of farming. Every year, farmers face more frequent and severe weather events, making it just that much harder to make a profit. There are concrete actions farmers can take to build resilience to weather extremes and pull carbon out of the atmosphere, but they need strong policy behind them. The recommendations we’ve compiled are a good place to start.” 

Larew said U.S. farmers and ranchers are on the frontline and have an enormous opportunity to be part of the solution in increasing climate resilience and focus on carbon sequestration.

He said the policy will not be included in any single vehicle moving on Capitol Hill, but the beauty of the alliance is an ongoing effort by those involved to work the policy recommendations into specific proposals that do begin to move. The alliance is not only engaging with the House and Senate but also talking to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team on a “number of priorities they have which align with these recommendations.”

Another FACA policy recommendation includes a U.S. Department of Agriculture-led Commodity Credit Corp. (CCC) carbon bank that would establish a price floor for carbon sequestration and GHG reductions. Larew said Biden has already listed the carbon bank as a priority, and it could be accomplished administratively.

Other components of the policy could find their way into some kind of economic recovery package or could also get included in the next farm bill.

When asked if the coalition would support Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s (D., Mich.) Growing Climate Solutions Act, Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said the legislation is a great example of a pro-climate, pro-farmer bill and is the kind of policy the coalition is looking at and has supported to ensure that farmers and rural communities are part of the solution.

Gore is optimistic that a number of bills in the House and Senate can be used as building blocks that lay a path forward for Capitol Hill and the incoming administration that benefits both friends in agriculture, forestry, food as well as continue to make good progress on the environment.

Stabenow applauded the work of the alliance, saying, “It’s great to see agriculture, forestry and environmental leaders teaming up to advance commonsense climate solutions. I look forward to reviewing their recommendations and working with them to enact many of these policies into law.”

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