Bipartisan Policy Center, Vilsack discuss climate policy in ag

A combine harvesting soybeans in a field.
Scott Myers harvests soybeans in a combine with help from his sons, Rowan, Callum and Henson, in Orrville, Ohio, Oct. 7. (Lucy Schaly photo)

Climate change has brought more rainy weather, more wildfires and more challenges overall to agriculture across the U.S. Some in agriculture and conservation see addressing it as an opportunity to create a new commodity, in addition to dealing with those challenges.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, created a task force in late 2020 to come up with policy recommendations on agriculture and forestry, and climate. The task force released those recommendations Feb. 2.

“Too often, agriculture and rural America feels like things are done to them, not with them,” said former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, one of the co-chairs of the task force, during a Feb. 2 webinar discussing the recommendations. “This is an opportunity to get ahead of that.”


The policy recommendations the task force came up with fit into six categories. They include expanding existing conservation programs, dealing with technical support and workforce needs, improving voluntary carbon markets, developing new incentives on the insurance and financial side, improving carbon storage and climate resilience for farms and forests and supporting research and development related to climate and farms and forests.

“One of the major recommendations deals with expansion of conservation programs that have been in existence for many years and have been working very well, but oftentimes, we run out of money,” said former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, one of the task force co-chairs.

He suggested the U.S. Department of Agriculture should identify which programs have been the most effective and shift more conservation money into those, out of programs that are less effective.


In the same event, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack said the USDA is planning to come up with a framework for a climate-smart agriculture and forestry partnership initiative. That initiative would seek to define a new “climate-smart” commodity — much like U.S. farmers have organic products, they could market products made with climate-friendly practices.

“There’s a value-added opportunity here,” Vilsack said. “But the challenge is, what does it mean to be a climate-smart commodity? … We want to establish that with this partnership.”

To do that, the USDA would need to do some large-scale demonstration and pilot projects measuring the impacts that climate-smart practices have on farms.

By focusing on climate-smart agriculture, the U.S. could also get the upper hand in global markets, Vilsack said. The USDA is trying to make sure U.S. agriculture isn’t too dependent on China for global exports. That means working on exports to other countries that may be more concerned about carbon emissions.

The European Union, he added, is focused on trying to get to net zero emissions. The EU has focused more on regulations, while the U.S. strategy has mostly involved voluntary programs.

“It’s a race to get there first,” he said. “In the emerging markets … we’ve got to play this game, and we have to win this game.”


Recommendations from the center’s task force focused on voluntary programs and incentives like tax credits and lower insurance costs. They also focused on ways addressing climate change could open up new revenue streams for farmers. Vilsack said the USDA’s current strategy takes a similar approach.

“I think there’s an opportunity here not only to impact the climate, but also to improve farm income,” Vilsack said.

Carbon markets have been a hot topic, as farm groups and conservation groups discuss climate solutions. Carbon markets allow companies that want to offset their emissions to buy “carbon credits,” which represent an amount of carbon being stored in soil or trees on farms or in forests.

Efforts to explore those markets come with a lot of questions and challenges, especially around verifying how much carbon is stored, and how long it will be stored. Some have noted since the U.S. does not have caps on carbon emissions, there isn’t a lot of incentive for companies to buy carbon credits, other than customers’ concerns about climate change.

The USDA is hoping to create a standard for verification, Vilsack said, and those large-scale demonstration projects could help by measuring how much carbon farmers are storing through conservation practices.

It is also working on ways to make sure smaller farmers, and farmers who are already using climate-smart practices, can get involved.


On the forestry side, Vilsack said the recently-passed infrastructure bill included funding for the USDA to replant 1.2 billion trees in national forests over the next decade. Forests are another big carbon sink, but when wildfires hit, all that carbon storage can go away very quickly. Preventing wildfires is another big part of the USDA’s forestry work.

“No matter how great a job we do on the agriculture side, if we don’t contain these catastrophic fires, all that carbon that’s been stored for hundreds of years in those forests goes up in smoke, so we have to make sure we reduce that catastrophic fire risk as well,” Vilsack said.

Heitkamp added wildfires cause issues with air quality across large parts of the U.S., in addition to issues with carbon storage.

“The biggest emerging issue is in forestry,” she said. “Once that carbon goes up, it takes years to recarbonize a forest.”


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