Farmers say they can do more on climate — if Congress helps

Source: By Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, February 28, 2021

Farmers are standing on one solution to climate change — the soil under their feet — but need more incentives from Washington to put it to work as a carbon sink, witnesses told the House Agriculture Committee yesterday.

In the panel’s first hearing on the issue in the new Congress, lawmakers heard from a Weather Channel celebrity and a North Dakota farmer who’s boosted production while protecting the environment through conservation measures — and they took cautionary notes about how best to craft any programs to reduce agriculture’s contribution to the warming climate.

“Simply put, the planet has a fever, and it’s getting worse,” said Jim Cantore, a Weather Channel meteorologist known for braving wind-swept tropical rains on the air.

Committee Chairman David Scott (D-Ga.) said agriculture is “at the tip of the spear” in crafting solutions to the climate crisis. In his new job leading the committee, Scott will be one of Congress’ key figures trying to bridge differences between Democratic and Republican approaches to the issue.

The North Dakota farmer, Gabe Brown, said he’s already found the answer. “That solution is biology, and it is regenerative agriculture,” said Brown, who has cut back on plowing, plants more cover crops to maintain the soil, and has reduced the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, all with a goal toward boosting production with a smaller carbon footprint.

The rewards are obvious, Brown told the committee: His yields have grown by as much as 30 times for some crops, and his profit margins have increased enough that he no longer enrolls in federal crop programs.

He said he believes his crops have a greater “nutrient density,” too, suggesting farmers can grow higher-quality food on less acres by adopting climate-friendly practices.

Brown said he’s seen an environmental benefit, too, with his soil capable of absorbing many times more water per hour than his next-door neighbors.

Yet the measures Brown has taken aren’t as widely adopted across U.S. farms as supporters of regenerative agriculture say they’d like.

And the hearing spotlighted the challenges Congress faces in encouraging more participation, including helping farmers cover upfront costs and shaping the public conversation toward a different type of farming.

“The amount of bare soil we see is absolutely appalling,” Brown said.

Agriculture accounts for about 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — less than the transportation and energy industries — but has great potential to contribute to carbon sequestration, scientists say, especially if forestry is considered a part of agriculture.

Brown said around half of U.S. carbon emissions could be sequestered through farming practices, especially soil conservation.

Farmers have been moving in the right direction by producing more food on less acres and adopting conservation practices much more advanced than in earlier generations, but they need new technology — and a regulatory environment that encourages it — to capture more carbon, said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Duvall warned against government mandates, praising voluntary programs and the possibility of nongovernmental carbon markets to reward farmers for practices that sequester carbon.

His group, the biggest farm lobbying organization in the country, has gradually moved toward positions more accepting of climate change as a problem — and an opportunity — for agriculture.

With Democrats running the congressional agenda at the outset of the Biden administration, climate change policy is poised for momentum, and lawmakers such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) yesterday pointed to legislation such as the “Growing Climate Solutions Act” to encourage a carbon market (E&E Daily, Jan. 29).

That bill, with Republican support as well, calls for a certification system that would help measure carbon reductions for farmers who want to participate.

By and large, yesterday’s hearing showed consensus among Republicans and Democrats about the value of conservation toward reducing carbon emissions — and the benefit of doing so.

The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), said he accepts that industrial production is contributing to climate change, although he warned against “apocalyptic” rhetoric that scares the public and isn’t grounded in science. “It divides lawmakers when what we need is collaboration,” Thompson said.

Still, some committee members on Thompson’s side appeared to question the need for yesterday’s examination, with Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) referring to “so-called man-made climate change” and asking Duvall instead about the Obama administration’s energy policies from 2009 to 2018 and the Biden administration’s stepping away from the Keystone XL pipeline.

“I find it really difficult to have a hearing about the effects of so-called man-made climate change and what we need to do about it with agriculture,” Hagedorn said, “and not address the proposals out there that would change the energy sector of this country and what that would do to the sustainability of our farmers from generation to generation and the profitability of our farmers and keeping the price of food affordable for the American people.”