Sustainability: Farmers Take the Lead on Climate Change

May 11, 2021

By Ariel Wiegard, ASA Director of Government Affairs  •  From Spring 2021 American Soybean magazine

The last several years in agriculture policy have been dominated by trade disruptions, natural disasters and the COVID pandemic. As we close the books on the federal relief programs that have supported farmers through darker days, I know many of us who work on ag policy are eager to shift focus to fresh topics.

New leadership in Congress, in the White House, and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been more than happy to oblige and have elevated climate change to become the number one topic of conversation. President Joe Biden lists “tackling the climate emergency” among his top priorities. USDA’s former and current Secretary Tom Vilsack mentioned it in his general session address to the 2021 Commodity Classic, and he has stated that he believes farms can provide the Biden Administration with “early wins” on the climate front. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees each recently held their first hearings of the 117th Congress on the impacts that climate change has on agriculture and on ways farmers can lead in halting and mitigating climate change impacts.

These federal leaders and others are trying to figure out quickly what new policies will help the agriculture sector make the earliest and best on-the-ground impact—and with good reason. The sector accounts for about 10% of overall U.S. emissions, and the industry’s land resources can sequester a significant chunk of other industries’ greenhouse gases, essential to achieving the Biden Administration’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Our leaders are coming to the table with some big ideas, like establishing a USDA-backed, Commodity Credit Corporation-funded green bank that would somehow be involved with paying farmers to store carbon, or conserving at least 30% of all U.S. lands and oceans (including farmland) by 2030. To be sure, we need big ideas, but we cannot forget that we already have legislation on the books that’s doing big things, right now.

The federal farm bill invests more than $6 billion annually in voluntary conservation of private lands. Already, more than 140 million acres of farmland are enrolled in federal programs that conserve land, water and habitat—equal to the total land area of California and New York. Sustainable soil use and resource conservation practices such as cover cropping and conservation tillage have increased by more than 34 million acres since 2012. Incorporation of ethanol and biodiesel into the fuel supply reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 71 million metric tons in 2018—equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road. All told, U.S. farm productivity has grown more than 270% since the 1940s without using more resources, while concurrently helping to save water and soil, enhance biodiversity and conserve energy.

Thanks to past farm bills, our farmers are already leading when it comes to climate change. That’s not to say we don’t welcome the exploration of big new ideas, especially those—like carbon markets—that could provide a diversified revenue stream for our nation’s farmers. But we need to be careful not to build new complex bureaucracies to do what can already be done with the programs we already have.

The next farm bill reauthorization is coming in 2023. Until then, ASA in Washington, D.C., will continue to promote existing farm bill policies that help farmers fight climate change. We know they work. That’s something for which we’re proud to advocate.