In his initial executive actions upon coming into office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order launching an all-of-government effort to confront climate change. As part of those efforts, the Biden administration has set an ambitious national conservation goal of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
For farmers, there has been a considerable amount of misinformation regarding what actions will be taken to meet the administration’s ambitious climate goals. Here are six things you should know about how the president’s climate plan could impact agriculture.
No land grab planned to meet goals
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says this administration will not use eminent domain to obtain farmers’ land to reach its climate goals, and instead working lands play an integral role in meeting climate and environmental goals. Vilsack says Biden’s 30x30 plan honors private property rights and supports the voluntary stewardship efforts of private landowners.
‘But I can assure you this: there's no intention to have a land grab,” Vilsack promises.
The Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful Plan states, “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners. Such efforts must also build trust among all communities and stakeholders, including by recognizing and rewarding the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners.”
The government will not limit meat consumption
Biden does not have any plans to limit meat consumption as part of his broader climate plan, according to Vilsack who quickly downplayed the rumors in a speaking engagement with agricultural journalists at the end of April.
“There is no effort designed to limit people’s intake of beef coming out of President Biden’s White House and USDA,” Vilsack says.
Vilsack says the information is not based on any desire, effort, press release or policy paper that would support the notion that the Biden administration would require people to eat less meat or that USDA has some program designed to reduce meat consumption. Vilsack did note there are some individual states where government leaders are calling for the reduction of meat consumption, but not at the national level.
USDA carbon bank is in its infancy
What is a carbon bank? Many farmers are asking that question and USDA continues to flesh out a concept that has become more widely discussed in recent months.
Bill Hohenstein, director of the Office of Energy and Environmental Policy in USDA’s Office of the Chief Economist, says at its core, a carbon bank can determine how USDA invests in activities on the farm, create greenhouse gas benefits and capture those greenhouse gas benefits.
If USDA does establish a carbon bank, it will likely still require Congressional approval as well as partnering with private markets. “The concept of a bank is basically a way or a place where these benefits get aggregated, investors can come in and make an investment, and farmers can receive those benefits for the activities that they're undertaking,” adds Hohenstein.
The carbon bank can also play an important role in rewarding early adopters. Private markets today only pay for environmental benefits going forward. But you wouldn’t want those early conservationists to go and erase their built-up benefits over decades just so they can qualify for more payments going forward. Similar to how the Conservation Security Program pays farmers for what they are already doing that offers positive environmental benefits, the USDA through a carbon bank could similarly pay farmers for doing the right things.
Changes will not come immediately
Vilsack has said that any USDA action on climate should take a “walk before you run” approach and test drive actions before wholesale changes.
Pilot projects are also a major component of new recommendations from the more than 70-members of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance. In an update to their 40 recommendations offered in November 2020, FACA developed more detailed recommendations on how a USDA-led voluntary carbon bank could help reduce barriers that may prevent participation in voluntary carbon markets and the deployment of critical climate infrastructure on working lands.
FACA recommends that USDA lay the foundation for a potential carbon bank by first developing a series of pilot projects that would focus on the following four areas: scaling climate solutions, removing barriers to adoption, improving carbon accounting standards and ensuring equitable opportunities.
Money is available now to test drive your own climate actions
Vilsack says the federal government will be looking for ways to bolster the locally-led conservation efforts as well as the inherit flexibility of the farm bill conservation programs to work with producers, landowners, conservation groups and states to accomplish the goal of not just preservation but conservation.
In late April, USDA expanded the Conservation Reserve Program by offering new incentives, higher rental rates, and more focused attention on sensitive lands with a goal of enrolling 4 million acres. USDA also announced investments in partnerships to increase climate-smart agriculture, including $330 million in 85 Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects and $25 million for On-Farm Conservation Innovation Trials.
Verification remains lynchpin in future profit potential for farmers
In the Senate, a bipartisan group of over one-third of senators introduced the Growing Climate Solutions Act which would create a certification program at USDA to help solve technical entry barriers to farmer and forest landowner participation in carbon credit markets. It would include access to reliable information about markets, qualified technical service providers and protocol verifiers. A companion bill is introduced in the House, but floor advancement remains unknown.
The President’s budget USDA seeks additional funds to provide technical assistance to farmers through the NRCS, but Congress still must make the final decision on appropriations.