Leading farm groups united with two major environmental groups to release on Tuesday more than 40 policy recommendations aimed at helping farmers benefit economically from reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions while helping growers become more resilient amid climate change. 

The proposals include some ideas that already have some Democratic support, including the concept of an Agriculture Department carbon bank to trade agricultural carbon credits, a proposal that's the brainchild of the leader of President-elect Joe Biden’s USDA transition team, Robert Bonnie, a USDA undersecretary during the Obama administration.

Organizers of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance said they began discussions about the proposals in 2019, well before it was apparent that President Donald Trump likely would lose reelection.

The alliance also expresses support for allowing farmers to earn federal tax credits for carbon sequestration, and calls for providing one-time payments to producers who have already adopted farm practices such as cover crops that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The payments to “early adopters” would be made through either an existing conservation program or a new program. Farmers could self-certify their carbon-saving practices based on soil testing, satellite imagery and participation in USDA conservation programs. 

The alliance includes four founding members: the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest general farm organization; the National Farmers Union, a group with a more progressive bent on farm and economic policy; the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Four additional groups joined later: FMI — The Food Industry Association (whose membership includes Walmart, Amazon, Kroger, Albertsons and other national and regional chains); National Association of State Departments of Agriculture; National Alliance of Forest Owners; and The Nature Conservancy.

The alliance plans to begin discussions with individual commodity groups later. Nearly 400 trade groups, nongovernmental organizations and others were scheduled to be briefed on the alliance Tuesday afternoon. An additional briefing for members of the Biden transition team was expected later in the week.

Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said the organizations believed because of the intense public interest and consumer pressure around climate change, the industry had no choice but to develop its own proposals for addressing the issue. 

“We were we at a crossroads where either we could sort of hunker down and, you know, fight these things … or we could work, get ourselves a seat at the table, and come up with recommendations “ that would be ”very climate friendly, climate smart,” Conner said. 

Under pressure from consumers and investors, dozens of food, restaurant and apparel corporations led by Walmart and other multinational corporations are setting goals for slashing greenhouse gas emissions in their supply chains. Walmart, the world’s largest grocer, has pledged to cut emissions in its supply chain one billion metric tons by 2030, the equivalent of taking 211 million cars off the road. Its agricultural suppliers are supposed to account for 200 million to 300 million metric tons of emissions. 

The introduction to the alliance’s 51-page plan said the organizations united around “three simple principles: Support voluntary, market- and incentive-based policies. Advance science-based outcomes. Promote resilience and help rural economies better adapt to climate change.”

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The plan includes proposals covering improving soil health as well as addressing livestock and dairy, forests and wood products, energy, research, and food waste. 

Many of the proposals are designed to be included in climate legislation that alliance members expect the next Congress to consider. Some of the ideas could be carried out administratively by the Biden administration. 

The proposal for a USDA carbon bank, which was also included in a plan released last week by Bonnie and other Obama administration veterans, would require Congress to significantly increase USDA’s $30 billion limit on its borrowing authority through the Commodity Credit Corp., according to the plan. 

Bonnie, who served as USDA’s undersecretary for natural resources and the environment during President Barack Obama’s second term, has also suggested Congress would need to explicitly the use of the CCC to buy and sell ag carbon credits. 

To support carbon markets, the alliance also endorsed enactment of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in the House and Senate this year to authorize USDA to start certifying verification services for carbon credits. 

Among other proposals in the alliance’s plan: 

  • Increase funding for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service by 10% to 20% to facilitate new and existing GHG emissions reductions, adaptation or resilience, and soil health efforts.
  • Dedicate 1% of USDA conservation spending for a new conservation technical assistance initiative focused on increasing climate resilience and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is among several recommendations that mirror provisions of the Agriculture Resilience Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and backed by some environmentalists and advocates for smaller scale agriculture. 
  • Prioritize new applications for the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program as well as existing contracts “that result in demonstrated positive soil health, carbon sequestration, and resilience outcomes where appropriate and in line with local conservation priorities.”
  • Make methane digesters, which use manure gas to generate electricity, eligible for a transferable tax credit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and make cooperatives eligible for subsidies through USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program. 
  • Require USDA to study the impact of farming practices that improve soil health on crop productivity and on crop insurance coverage, liabilities and premium rates.
  • Require the Environmental Protection Agency to update their life cycle analyses of greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels.

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