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First hints at Biden's climate strategy for food and ag

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In its choices of what to highlight in the summary, we can see where the department might be headed.

President Joe Biden’s new administration is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate change. The American Jobs Plan being debated in Congress contains big money for electric vehicle infrastructure and aggressive cuts to fossil fuel electricity, to name just two components of the plan. Yet food and farming get only a passing mention. These sectors don’t appear to be among the hands that Biden wants on deck, at least not immediately.

So what role does the administration want the food system to play in climate strategy? Hints emerged last week in a summary of the 2,700 comments and 10 listening sessions held by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of plans to develop a strategy for "climate-smart agriculture." Farmer groups weighed in, as did environmental organizations, commodity traders and agtech businesses.

The department’s summary is a cautious document, pitched as an overview of what others said and not a guide to the department’s intent. Yet the document can’t contain everything the USDA heard. So in its choices of what to highlight, we can see where the department might be headed. Here are four things I noticed.

No mention of a carbon bank

Farmland soils have the potential to draw down hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually, boosting soil fertility and enhancing water retention in the process. Environmental advocates and farmer organizations agree that producers need financial assistance to implement the regenerative practices involved and — so proponents of a "carbon bank" argue — the USDA should use some of the tens of billions of dollars at its disposal to pay farmers to sequester carbon.

Despite much speculation, there’s no direct mention of this idea in the report. The most relevant language is the somewhat opaque note that the department could act as a "source of demand for agricultural carbon credits by setting clear price signals through price supports, loan programs or other financial tools that can help producers implement [climate-smart] technologies." Mention of "other financial tools" might leave the door open to a carbon bank, but ag secretary Tom Vilsack declined to discuss this option when Agri-Pulse asked him about the issue recently.

Many mentions of measurement

One idea that does comes up repeatedly in the report is that the government should build capacity for measuring and verifying carbon storage. This is a critical need. A voluntary carbon market for soil sequestration is taking shape, but issues of cost and reliability are hampering attempts to monitor the carbon stored in farmland soils. A lot of people would welcome government investment in these challenges.

Not everyone feels that way, however. "It seems most of the carbon or ecosystem services market suggestions in the report are already being heavily invested in by private voluntary ecosystem services markets," said Debbie Reed, executive director of one such project, the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium.

There is a critical need for the government to build capacity for measuring and verifying carbon storage.

"Instead of USDA jumping into that space, what is missing are new and innovative risk products for producers," added Reed. "New insurance products to help producers adapt and even survive variable weather and extreme weather events, including droughts and flooding. If producers are unable to weather these increased episodes, ag markets will not remain viable."

What happened to food waste?

Food waste is a key part of most high-level plans to reduce the climate impact of agriculture. And for good reason: Of the 54 million tons of food wasted in the U.S. in 2019, over a quarter was lost on farms. In 2015, the USDA declared that it would work with the Environmental Protection Agency to cut waste in half by 2030. That work is ongoing, but there is no sign in the report of a forthcoming boost. Food waste gets a paragraph in the 20-page report, in which the department says that it will continue to work with partners on the issue.

Staying silent on beef

It’s no surprise that the report has almost nothing to say about the emissions associated with beef, or any other meat. Just a few weeks back, a handful of Republicans, backed by some conservative pundits, accused the Biden administration of wanting to ban beef. There was zero substance to the story, but it played well on social media nonetheless. Fears of fueling stories like that almost certainly will prevent the administration from doing anything that might be seen as restricting consumer choice on meat.

Still, the USDA could do plenty of other things. A couple get the briefest of mentions in the report: funding research into feed additives that cut methane emissions from cattle and the use of regenerative grazing. 

What gets more attention in the report is a technology that’s attractive to bigger producers but less liked by some environmental groups. Digesters capture methane from manure and transform it into natural gas, which can then be used to produce electricity or power trucks. "USDA should support producers as they enter these new markets and consider innovative finance mechanisms to provide upfront capital for biogas technologies," reads the report.

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Methane digesters already receive support from state governments, but the process is controversial for a couple of reasons. Critics argue that the technology only makes financial sense for the largest operators, which cuts smaller farms out of the deal. Support for natural gas in electricity generation also runs counter to Biden’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from electricity production by 2035.

Summing it up

It’s hard to know what to make of the document given that it’s a summary of feedback to the department rather than a set of proposals. Still, there must have been some more ambitious ideas in that feedback than what I see in the report. It would have been great to have seen more attention on systems for distributing surplus food and upcycling unwanted produce, for instance. There are no bold statements about scaling regenerative practice, or about experimenting with the newer biological fertilizers that create less emissions and generate less nutrient run-off. There’s no mention of controlled environment agriculture, a.k.a. indoor farming. All in all, this reads like a series of incremental suggestions. Many will be beneficial, but I hope this isn’t the extent of the administration’s ambition on food systems.

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