Trump Agriculture Department and farming groups tiptoe into climate discussion

Source: By Abby Smith, Washington Examiner • Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2020

 The Department of Agriculture is looking to halve the U.S. farming industry’s environmental footprint by mid-century in a target that includes several climate and clean energy goals.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue will announce the target, which also includes boosting agricultural production by 40% in that timeframe, at the agency’s annual agricultural outlook forum Thursday. The production and environmental goals are a critical piece of the administration’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda, which Perdue says will “better align” public and private research into new farming practices.

“We are committed as ever to the economic sustainability and continued success of America’s farmers, ranchers, foresters, and producers,” Perdue said in a statement.

Under its new agenda, USDA is setting a number of environmental “benchmarks.” That includes achieving a “net reduction of the agricultural sector’s current carbon footprint” by 2050, according to a news release shared with the Washington Examiner. The department will specifically urge farmers to boost carbon sequestration in soils.

In addition, the department will urge the farming industry to cut food waste in half by 2030, minimize nutrient loss in soils by 30% by 2050, and increase biofuels production to reach 15% of transportation fuels by 2030 and 30% by 2050.

USDA hasn’t put a specific number on the greenhouse gas goal, though, and it isn’t clear how the agency would hold the sector accountable if it doesn’t reach those benchmarks.

“The ‘net reduction’ in the carbon footprint is meant to encompass agriculture’s value chain — including the benefits of low-carbon fuels and energy,” a USDA spokesperson told the Washington Examiner.

USDA’s announcement comes as the farming sector writ large is dipping its toes into the climate policy conversation. Twenty-one of the biggest farming industry lobbying groups — including the heavily Republican American Farm Bureau — announced Wednesday they were forming a new coalition to advocate for the industry in climate policy discussions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“Today is a really defining moment in agriculture,” said Ethan Lane, vice president of government affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a member of the new coalition.

Groups representing the “vast majority of American agriculture are standing together to talk about our environmental record and deal with an issue that has haunted us for as long as I can remember,” Lane added.

USDA has already been engaging with the new coalition, the agency spokesperson said.

The coalition’s launch event, however, turned a bit tense as many representatives from the farming organizations were hesitant to embrace climate change science, even as their groups were uniting to ensure their seat at the table in policy discussions about the issue.

For example, while the coalition’s principles statement emphasizes science-based decision making, it doesn’t directly mention “climate change.” Its most direct reference to climate change is a statement that the groups are hoping to ensure farmers are able to “respond and adapt to climatic events.”

“Whether it’s human-induced or natural-induced, if the climate is changing, you need to address the fact that it’s changing,” said Michael Formica, assistant vice president of domestic policy and legal counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, adding farmers improving their efficiency is the best way to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Asked if it matters whether farmers agree climate change is human-induced, Formica added, “I think the end result is what matters, that you’ve reduced your emissions.”

Nonetheless, the farming groups also vigorously defended their environmental record, calling themselves the “original environmentalists.” They argued they’ve been unfairly attacked on climate change, noting the agriculture community was responsible for just 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

In 2018, the agriculture sector accounted for 9.3% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, a slight increase from the previous year, according to the latest draft inventory from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” Lane said, saying that all of American agriculture only producing 9% of U.S. emissions “is a bargain.”

Just one of the groups that spoke Wednesday, the National Cotton Council of America, said it had numeric climate and environmental targets, including a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 39% by 2025.

The farming sector is “just an easy target for everybody,” Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau, told the Washington Examiner following the event. “We’re here to tell the facts of the story and make sure that everybody sees that we’re willing to do more, but compared to the world, American agriculture is already three times better.”