A new bipartisan Senate bill that has the backing of leading farm and environmental groups aims to address climate change by directing the Agriculture Department to play a key role in overseeing the operation of agricultural carbon markets. 

The Growing Climate Solutions Act being introduced Thursday is designed to provide legitimacy and transparency to ag carbon trading by establishing a USDA-run system for certifying third-party verifiers and technical service providers. The third-party verifiers will in turn certify the credit-generating farm practices. 

In a sign of ag’s growing role in climate policy debates, the bill’s lead sponsors include two Republicans, Senate Agriculture Committee member Mike Braun of Indiana and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, as well as Debbie Stabenow, Senate Ag's top Democrat, and Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the Senate’s most prominent voices on climate policy. 

The bill’s introduction comes as many companies and groups are developing protocols for calculating the reductions in carbon emissions provided by agricultural practices ranging from no-till farming to methane capture. Multinational corporations are expected to increase their demand for the credits as they try to meet commitments for reducing their carbon footprint.

The organizations and companies supporting the bill include the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, McDonald’s and Microsoft.

Also supporting the bill is the Ecosystems Services Market Consortium, a coalition that is researching and testing protocols for carbon markets. ESMC is creating its own certification program but believes a USDA program would help create a talent pool of knowledgable specialists who understand carbon markets, said Executive Director Debbie Reed. 

Brent Bible, an Indiana farmer who is an adviser to the Environmental Defense Fund, says in an op-ed for Agri-Pulse that "the cost and complexity of certifying credits has kept many farmers from participating in greenhouse gas markets. ... The Growing Climate Solutions Act would simplify and standardize the certification process for generating credits and help farmers realize more returns on their investments in credit-worthy practices."

Under the bill, third-party verifiers and technical service providers approved by USDA would be able to advertise themselves as “USDA-certified.” 

USDA would be required to set up an expert advisory council to provide input on the certification program. 

USDA also would be required to establish a website that would serve as a primary source of reliable information and resources for farmers and foresters who are interested in participating in carbon markets. 

“As a Main Street entrepreneur and conservationist, I know firsthand that if we want to address our changing climate then we need to facilitate real solutions that our farmers, environmentalists and industry can all support, which this bill accomplishes,” said Braun. 

Stabenow said the 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."

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David Perry, CEO of Boston-based Indigo Agriculture, a biotech firm that has established a carbon credit program of its own, said the USDA certification program would “accelerate the role of agriculture as a climate solution while bringing greater economic and environmental resiliency to rural communities. 

“Agriculture offers one of the most immediate, affordable, and scalable opportunities to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the release of this bill is a critical step in harnessing that potential."

Read the text of the bill here. 

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