As the 117th Congress is seated and the new Biden Administration begins, policymakers have an unprecedented opportunity: to build a new economy that recognizes agricultural sustainability as a core value within the larger framework of restoring our nation’s financial well-being and combating climate change.
In recent years, farmers have faced increased adversity on a range of fronts: years of low commodity prices, rising input costs, market volatility, and extreme weather events. Despite these challenges, they continue to strive to be better stewards of their farmland and to make their businesses more profitable and resilient.
Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Government support for innovation in agriculture and climate science would help create a win-win, placing the industry on the cutting edge of this opportunity to drive tangible, measurable change, and supporting farm businesses as they adopt more climate-friendly practices. Reducing total agriculture emissions by just 10 percent would mean 66 million fewer metric tons of carbon in the air each year, equivalent to taking 14.2 million cars off the road.
But farmers can’t shoulder the responsibility of building a more sustainable agriculture economy alone. Food and consumer-packaged goods companies have started adjusting their supply chains and paying farmers premiums for environmentally-friendly crops while meeting consumer demand for products with transparency and traceability. And yet, more needs to be done to incentivize these initiatives and ensure farmers are compensated fairly.
Policymakers have the opportunity to accelerate this market-driven approach by focusing on four key areas.
First, the federal government can play a direct role in facilitating an agriculture carbon market. Members of the Biden transition team have offered a proposal to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to allocate significant resources to a new agriculture carbon bank, which would help consolidate a fragmented landscape of private carbon markets. Markets will benefit immediately from a single rulebook and referee, but much work is required to structure the market, as well as to select the right carbon model and verification methodology.
The transition team would need to align policymakers, farmer groups, industry, environmental and science communities, and technology companies for this new market to succeed. It’s a tall order, but a priority that belongs in the first 100 days.
Secondly, regenerative agriculture programs can be funded more effectively through private/public partnerships. The USDA provides education, local expertise, and funding for farmers to adopt and explore regenerative practices but currently has less than 10 percent of working lands enrolled in its programs. Policymakers can accelerate adoption of regenerative agriculture practices by encouraging private industry to experiment with win-win models for farmers and the environment.
Programs like Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Alternative Funding Arrangement (AFA) and other large-scale projects will be important laboratories for wider scale initiatives like the new administration’s carbon bank.
Third, promoting resiliency through existing federal crop insurance and agriculture lending programs would not only reward farmers’ investments in sustainable farming practices but shore up the U.S. financial system against major insurance risks stemming from climate change. And if practices like cover cropping — in which farms build soil nutrients by keeping vegetation in the ground year-round — increase resiliency as expected, then farmers implementing these practices would be lower risk, and thus, lower cost to insure and more secure in the face of ongoing extreme weather events.
Finally, supporting the inclusion of feedstock carbon scoring for biofuels will also make a tangible impact on carbon emissions.
Some may be surprised to learn that the average lifecycle emissions of ethanol today is 34 percent below traditional liquid fuels, and biopower from low-carbon feedstocks can be less carbon-intensive than even photovoltaics.
In some states, clean fuel programs reward biorefineries for decreasing the carbon impact of biofuel production. But in these markets, credit generation stops at the refinery where an average efficiency score is assigned across all the feedstock grain. A rule change could extend detailed farm-level scoring to the grain bushel itself, rewarding higher prices to farmers that apply sustainable practices and drive down emissions from the first link in the biofuel supply chain.
Some 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is processed into ethanol and increasing quantities of soybeans go to renewable diesel. Incorporation of feedstock scoring in clean fuel markets is a unique opportunity to build wide-scale, voluntary programs that reward regenerative practices.
The EPA should evaluate how unlocking feedstock scoring in existing and proposed state and regional clean fuel markets can impact climate change, local ecosystems, and rural economies.
American farmers have proven their resiliency, especially in 2020. These recommendations provide the opportunity for policymakers to support and invest in farmers and rural America directly, secure the food supply, all while promoting an agriculture economy that is a leading ally in the fight against climate change.
About Devin Lammers: Devin Lammers is the President of Crop Marketing and Financial Services for Farmer’s Business Network, Inc. and Chief Executive Officer of Gradable. He hails from South Dakota where his family has farmed and ranched for four generations.
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