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Serious about climate change? Get serious about agriculture

The Hill logo The Hill 4/15/2021 Britt Groosman, opinion contributor
a large long train on a railroad track: Serious about climate change? Get serious about agriculture © Getty Images Serious about climate change? Get serious about agriculture

Washington has come a long way since the great climate change debate of 2010 sent industries and environmental advocates back to their corners to plan the fight for or against the next big congressional showdown. Now it's here - but it's not the one I expected.

Instead of quibbling over whether and why to reduce carbon emissions, Congress is actively legislating how to do so.

Amassing as a bipartisan political force for policy change are the farmers, foresters and ranchers who are at once at high risk from a changing climate and poised to grow rural economies by being part of the solution. It's no surprise that Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) have made the risks and rewards of climate change for agriculture a focus of their efforts and partnership.

Farmers are masters at adaptation. But climate change-induced heat, water and pest stressors are outpacing farmer adaptation and threatening the long-term economic viability of farm economies and rural communities.

Agriculture can help direct its own fate so long as it has the right policies, incentives and technical resources to both mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to future climate impacts. Doing so will help strengthen the domestic food supply and bring new revenue to rural economies.

The agriculture sector currently contributes about 10 percent to overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That's lower than global agricultural contributions, but there's opportunity for improvement.

About one-third of U.S. methane emissions - a more potent warmer than carbon dioxide and a decisive factor in the rate of global warming in the near future - come from the livestock sector. Improving manure management and addressing enteric emissions could cut livestock methane emissions drastically in the next decade.

Maintaining and increasing perennial vegetation in grasslands, wetlands and forests is another proven way to avoid new emissions and permanently sequester large amounts of carbon. Many of these natural climate solutions also provide soil health, water quality and flood control benefits that support the health of farms and surrounding communities.

These opportunities are large, and they are real, but farmer adoption of conservation practices that provide these benefits remains low. To take advantage of them, farmers need tailored advice and technical assistance, and they need financial incentives and policies to help them close the gap between potential and reality. The private sector and policymakers have important roles to play here.

In the private sector, major companies in the agricultural supply chain are already stepping up by setting climate commitments and implementing programs to support farmers in reducing emissions and building resilience. Agricultural lending institutions can further support farmers by conducting climate risk assessments and developing programs to support the adoption of resilient production practices. At scale, this would reduce overall risk to the agricultural lending sector.

Likewise, the crop insurance program could better address climate risks and reward practices that are known to increase climate resilience and reduce risk for farmers and the insurance program.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can also support producers by setting rules for agricultural carbon markets, which farmers tell me currently feel a little too much like the Wild West. The bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act led by Stabenow and Braun would help farmers navigate voluntary market opportunities. With appropriate scientific benchmarks, we can ensure farmers are rewarded for measurably reducing net emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gasses.

Meanwhile, the USDA is exploring the idea of a "carbon bank," which would provide a financial backstop for farmers who are looking for reassurance that there will be a return on their investment in climate-friendly production practices. To do this successfully, USDA will need to define market criteria for measurable net greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Congress and the USDA should also carefully consider equity and justice. Financial incentives and other benefits of new policies must be equitable, particularly for Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color.

The demand for policy action and incentives to support agricultural climate solutions is growing increasingly urgent. As proof that the old battle lines no longer apply, the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and other agriculture organizations have joined with Environmental Defense Fund and other environmental nonprofits to find a path forward together in the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance.

Farmers stand willing to contribute to climate solutions. It's time for Congress and the USDA to help them.

Groosman is vice president of ecosystems at the Environmental Defense Fund, where she helps create environmentally effective and economically sound solutions for working landscapes, including farms, ranches and forests.

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