Sustainability, regenerative agriculture, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, net-zero emissions. The dictionary of “green” buzzwords is growing faster than Webster can keep up with their definitions.
Add “climate smart” to the list. That’s the phrase the USDA has adopted to describe practices that decrease greenhouse gas and increase soil carbon storage. As the federal government puts climate-change policy in the spotlight, farming is being pinpointed as both a problem and a solution. Agriculture is thought to contribute about 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions but theoretically could more than offset its own footprint with conservation.
Blaming agriculture for environmental issues is nothing new. Neither are the “climate-smart” practices that farmers have used for decades as responsible stewards— no-till, cover crops, rotational grazing and nutrient management, among others. What is new are the unprecedented conversations and collaborations taking place among groups that are proactively working to take control of the situation.
The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance is one such unlikely coalition. Its extensive membership includes organizations that have historically butted heads on the environment but have broken barriers to direct new climate policy priorities. In this alliance, we find the American Farm Bureau and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives working alongside climate advocates such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy.
Strange bedfellows, maybe. But the goal is pretty clear. Farmers want to guide federal climate legislation rather than have it dictated from Washington, and having a seat at the table is key to that strategy.
This new dynamic is interesting in many ways. Climate change is one of those topics that farmers have been afraid to talk about too loudly for fear it would conjure up more regulations. But now, groups that have purposely avoided climate change conversations are openly discussing the formerly taboo topic.
For example, in August, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association announced a commitment to climate neutrality by 2040. Marty Smith, 2021 NCBA past president, said, “It’s time to play some offense and quit being kicked around by biased, unscientific data.”
That seems to be the agreed-upon approach across the industry. Leaders are pushing hard for climate policies to be built on sound science and voluntary, incentive-based tools for farmers—not mandates or cumbersome regulations. So far, so good.
In his address to Congress in April, President Biden proposed paying farmers to grow cover crops as part of his climate plan. Along those lines, the USDA expanded the Conservation Reserve Program to include new incentives and higher payments for farmers who agree to take land out of production. USDA also began offering a $5-per-acre benefit on crop insurance premiums to farmers who plant cover crops.
In June, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” which supports the creation of voluntary carbon markets for farmers and landowners. The vote was 92-8, making it a rare example of bipartisan action on climate legislation. The bill is now in the House of Representatives.
And just last month, a new Senate bill was introduced to help farmers finance precision agriculture equipment through the USDA. It would be the first federal loan program dedicated to precision agriculture.
No doubt we will see a continued onslaught of public and private programs to support the current climate agenda. There’s no better time for farmers to consider some of these climate-friendly practices and potentially profit from them. Right now, all of the proposals are voluntary, but participation will be critical to keeping it that way.
MFA is in an ideal position to help farmers navigate opportunities that may come out of these initiatives. After all, we’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to being climate smart—from cutting-edge precision agriculture services to the advice of highly trained experts in agronomy, livestock and conservation. Earlier this year, MFA joined a pilot program to explore carbon and water-quality markets for corn and soybean growers. And this month’s cover story outlines how MFA is encouraging the use of less-profitable acres for pollinator habitat.
As the climate-change movement gains momentum, farmers will finally have the chance to stop being defensive about environmental stewardship and shift to an offensive strategy. If everyone does his or her part, agriculture truly can help steer the climate conversation.
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