Members of the House Agriculture Committee on both sides of the aisle raised concerns Thursday that many farmers will be left out of emerging carbon markets, and the panel was sharply divided over whether the Agriculture Department should be involved in regulating them.
Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., also raised the possibility during a hearing that using agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could affect food production.
“We’ve got some serious questions that we need to deal with,” Scott said at the outset of the hearing.
Afterwards, Scott confirmed to Agri-Pulse that the committee would eventually vote on the Senate-passed Growing Climate Solutions Act, which is intended to accelerate the growth of carbon markets by authorizing USDA to certify farm advisers and credit verification services.
But he didn’t say when the committee debate would be scheduled. The bill passed the Senate, 92-8, but the measure faces more resistance in the House.
Several Republicans on the House committee expressed concern about getting USDA involved in carbon markets. The bill currently has 60 House sponsors, including 23 Republicans.
"With the Senate's insistence on instituting what is essentially a new regulatory regime through the Growing Climate Solutions Act, that body is forcing the House to evaluate the efficacy of these markets now,” said the top Republican on the House committee, Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa. “Without government intervention, the marketplace could answer questions of permanence, science, or fairness of the markets.”
Much of the concern raised by lawmakers focused on the ability of farmers to participate in carbon markets, including minority and small-scale farmers, and the impact on those growers who may be unable to earn credits for practices such as cover crops and conservation tillage that they have been using for years.
“My concern … is that there's going to be a value created out of thin air that's going to provide very little for the farmer or the environment, and then a whole bunch of people that don't have anything to do with agriculture are going to be getting the money,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.
Like several of her colleagues, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., wanted to know how “small, historically disadvantaged farmers” could participate in carbon markets.
Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., said that common carbon-saving practices such as conservation tillage didn’t work for her state’s sugar and rice growers.
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But Leo Bastos, senior vice president and head of global commercial ecosystems for Bayer, which operates its own carbon payment program in 17 states, told the committee that it it's important to get started on carbon markets and that additional research is needed to ensure that farmers in more regions can participate.
“We think it’s a step-wise process. We start where we can actually have an impact,” he said.
Callie Eideberg, director of government relations for the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the varying approaches to measuring the impact of carbon-saving practices and paying farmers for them meant that it was “precisely the time” for Congress to authorize USDA to get involved.
“Our approaches to accounting for these environmental benefits are all over the map. There is no referee on the playing field. … Without better standards or any kind of standardization, we may very well see these markets fail,” she said.
But David Milligan, a Michigan farmer who is president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, said that some common carbon-saving practices such as conservation tillage aren’t practical for some of his members, and winter wheat season overlaps with the timing of cover crops.
Milligan also shared Chairman Scott’s concern that food production could be affected by cover crops.
“I think there is some possibility is that this could become a problem to food security if some of these programs out there … would reduce production,” Milligan said. He did not elaborate.
Jeanne Merrill, policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network, argued that carbon markets were unlikely to help many farmers, citing a California cap and trade program that had primarily benefitted dairy farms that could install methane digesters to capture biogas. A practice for rice growers also had been approved for payments under the California system but had largely been ignored, she said.
Meanwhile, a state-funded conservation program that provides direct assistance to producers has been highly popular, she said.
But supporters of carbon markets, including the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a coalition of farm and environmental groups, say that both USDA involvement as well as increased conservation spending are needed. The conservation funding would help farmers implement practices that could qualify for carbon payments.
“These voluntary markets are entirely complementary to USDA conservation programs,” said Debbie Reed, executive director of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium. Conservation program assistance provides a form of “up-front financing to help farmers and ranchers to actually participate in the markets,” she said.
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