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Ag’s seat at the table for climate policy important if major changes encouraged through voluntary incentives.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

January 26, 2021

6 Min Read
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This is the fifth installment of a special multi-part series offering what we might see under the incoming President Joe Biden administration. 

The last time there was a significant debate on a climate bill in Congress was 2009, and it failed. Some have even attributed the agricultural sector’s opposition as part of the reason. Fast forward to 2021, and agriculture is no longer seen as the major emitter of greenhouse gas emissions but as part of a potential solution. Climate regulations or stipulations could quickly find their way woven into anything coming out of the White House or advanced in Congress.

Climate is already emerging as a cornerstone issue for the Biden administration, with more than a dozen executive orders and memos setting the agenda on the climate. Ensuring any regulatory or legislative approach that does not harm, but rather incentivizes, good practices will be the lynchpin for the agriculture community to support any action.  

Related: Biden takes quick action on climate

Specifically, in an Executive Order on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis Biden calls for advancing “environmental justice.” He lays out the policy of his administration will be to “listen to the reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”

Anne MacMillian, agriculture and food practice group leader at Invariant who also served on Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s staff during the Obama administration, recently spoke on a policy outlook webinar with Randy Russell, president and partner at the Russell Group. Both agreed climate policy will be a high priority for the incoming Biden administration as well as Democrats in Congress.

Biden’s appointment of both former Secretary of State John Kerry as his international climate envoy and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy as the domestic climate czar and several additional nominees and staff appointments solidifies his desire to direct focus on addressing the climate.

Russell also says the big change in sentiment hasn’t been on the Democrat side, but with Republicans bringing a “sea change” of new optimism for a final product to provide some support from both sides of the aisle. “We may not be all the way there, but we’ve seen great progress made and this bodes well for something being done ultimately,” he says.

Related: What does Biden’s climate team mean for farmers?

Offense vs. defense

MacMillian says for years the agricultural sector was seen as a bad actor and a problem that needed to be regulated within the climate debate. Seemingly overnight, ag became part of the solution and a willing partner, she says.

“Now we have to put some meat on the bones,” MacMillian says. “I do feel the tide shifted enough from a carrot, not a stick approach, with opportunities both in the farm bill or other climate pieces of legislation to help provide incentives.”

Russell says there is a real opportunity for the agriculture and food industry to get away from the defensive mode and instead turn to offense to change the value proposition of the discussion and gear the focus to how to generate new revenue for growers and producers.

Russell was involved with the Food & Agriculture Climate Alliance formation which now stands ready with a comprehensive plan of more than 40 recommendations in place as discussion heats up on Capitol Hill and with a new administration coming in. Both agricultural and environmental groups came together outlining what provides opportunities for agreement in the climate debate.

Related: Climate policy is coming

MacMillian says livestock groups have been a little slower to tout their involvement and engagement in climate solutions than other commodity groups. She says livestock and meat groups need to see what they can bring to the table, as they’re such a big piece of the solution, in terms of practices and improvements made in a way that still allows them to run their businesses and produce food.

Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says NCBA plans to continue to advocate for commonsense in climate policy. “A lot of folks are coming in with bad information with respect to the climate impact,” Lane says.

He says we’re all familiar with the work of the Humane Society of the United States or People for the Ethical Treatment of animals in trying to sell a vegan or no meat agenda. “They’ve not been successful beyond 3% of folks who have a fully vegan lifestyle. A lot of groups are using climate as a new way into that conversation,” Lane says. “We’re going to have to push back with facts” including that methane from beef cattle accounts for only 2% of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Lane notes pasture-based operations cultivate healthy soil to improve carbon storage, grazing reduces fine fuels that contribute to catastrophic wildfire that causes significant air pollution and long-term damage to soil and water health, and advancements in feed efficiency directly reduce methane emissions. 

USDA-led climate action

MacMillian says incoming Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack could usher in some “bold action out of USDA, which we haven’t really seen in the past, on climate.” With the weight of the White House and administration behind him, Vilsack could bring in his expertise to help establish a carbon bank at USDA, verify and quantify actions farmers are taking and line up needed research.

Robert Bonnie was named USDA deputy chief of staff for policy and senior adviser on climate in the office of the secretary. He most recently led the Biden transition team for USDA and Russell shares he was instrumental in helping formulate the FACA recommendations brokered between environmental and agricultural groups.

“Bonnie is an expert in this,” Russell says of ag’s role in mitigating climate. “He knows how to get things done.”

Most recently Bonnie served as an executive in residence at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Previously, he served as director of the Farm and Forests Carbon Solutions Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center, where he worked to develop new initiatives to combat the climate crisis through agricultural innovation. During the Obama Administration, he served as undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment and as a senior adviser to Vilsack for climate and the environment.

Russell adds from day one when Vilsack comes into office, he can hit the ground running. He knows the career staff and can quickly prioritize the issues he wants to work on which offers him a huge advantage.

Andrew Walmsley, director of Congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, adds the agricultural sector will need to communicate gains the industry has made and impacts of any proposals that arise. “There’s a fine line of policy proposals out there that would be harmful,” he says.  

First Installment: Biden administration: Labor issues offer pros and cons

Second Installment: Biden administration: New trade approach ahead

Third installment: Biden administration: What will happen to your taxes?

Fourth installment: Biden administration: Will farmers see another WOTUS redo?

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About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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