Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee are raising concerns the Biden administration is excessively promoting climate-related ag practices, with one GOP member linking the policy to higher food prices.
The committee’s top Republican, Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania, warned USDA officials Thursday that the programs in the farm bill’s conservation title must adequately address environmental concerns beyond just climate change.
“It must remain the conservation title and not be repurposed as the climate title,” Thompson said as committee launched a series of hearings and listening sessions examining various aspects of the farm bill.
“While a number of conservation programs can clearly provide climate benefits, the broad emphasis of (the conservation title) must remain on the proven conservation practices that would directly benefit the producer and support the sustainability of American agriculture,” Thompson said.
Another committee Republican, Rick Allen of Georgia, raised the possibility that taking land out of production for carbon sequestration was indirectly contributing to inflation.
'This new administration is all about climate, and we’re seeing food prices skyrocket. … I just need to know what this is going to cost,” Allen said.
Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said it’s unlikely the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program was affecting the price of food.
He said FSA is encouraging producers to cut hay from CRP during permissible periods of the year to use when the feed is needed.
“We're really emphasizing the working lands aspect” of the CRP, he said. “We hope producers take a look at that as an opportunity to stockpile feed or foodstuff for the future use and capitalize on that (CRP acreage) as an asset."
As it stands, USDA is facing a challenge of getting landowners to enroll land in CRP at a time of relatively high commodity prices. Some 22.1 million acres are currently enrolled in CRP, well short of the fiscal 2022 cap of 25.5 million acres, and contracts on 4 million acres are set to expire Sept. 30. FSA started a new general signup Monday that ends March 11.
Ducheneaux also stressed the potential for farmers to benefit financially from climate-related practices. "There's a growing movement in the climate industry that's talking about soil wealth as opposed to soil health,” he said.
Republicans also raised concerns about the ability of the Natural Resources Conservation Service to use the more than $20 billion earmarked for conservation programs other than CRP in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which is now stalled in the Senate.
NRCS Chief Terry Cosby assured lawmakers that the agency was working aggressively to fill staffing gaps and replace departing employees.
He said the agency had hired 3,000 workers over the past two years and expected to hire that many over the coming two years. The agency currently has 10,300 employees, and Cosby said he expects to reach the agency’s staffing limit of just over 11,000 this year.
“We are working very closely with our state conservationists and our folks across the country to figure out what is the talent that we need,” he said.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who chairs the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, praised USDA for steps taken to add climate-related incentives to conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. USDA announced in January a new EQIP cover crop initiative and the nationwide availability of conservation incentive contracts.
“All of these programs deliver on the ground resources that help us mitigate and adapt to climate change,” Spanberger said.
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