Agriculture may be ‘first and best place’ for climate gains, says Vilsack

The Biden administration will work with farmers, ranchers and forest owners “to create new sources of revenue tied to their good climate practices,” said agriculture secretary-nominee Tom Vilsack on Tuesday. With USDA’s broad authority to aid farmers, he said he could launch carbon sequestration initiatives that soon would become a standard part of the federal farm program.

“I think agriculture is probably the first and best place to begin getting some wins in this climate area,” said Vilsack during a confirmation hearing. “Farmers are prepared for it. Farmers are anxious to do it. If it’s voluntary, if it’s market-based, if it’s incentive-based, I think you will see farmers, ranchers and producers cooperate extensively.”

A Senate vote on Vilsack’s nomination will be held as soon as possible, said an aide to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the incoming Senate Agriculture chairwoman. Committee members, meeting soon after Vilsack’s testimony, approved the nomination on a voice vote with no objections.

“It’s not lost on me that it’s Groundhog Day,” said Vilsack, who led USDA throughout the Obama years. “I’m back.” The setting was far different from his January 2009 confirmation hearing. Vilsack appeared via the internet this time due to the pandemic and since there was no power-sharing agreement between Republicans and Democrats for this legislative session, Stabenow and Republican Sen. John Boozman jointly ran the hearing. “We each have a gavel today,” she said.

President Biden describes climate change as an existential threat and says American agriculture should be first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases. “I share the president’s vision,” said Vilsack. The goal could be reached with a variety of approaches, such as biobased manufacturing and cover crops, no-till farming and practices that improve soil health, he said, or the USDA could certify successful carbon sequestration practices, a role that would facilitate carbon markets.

“I think it will be fair to say we will aggressively pursue an effort to get farmer input to make sure that the programs that we design and the programs that we advance are ones that will work out in the field,” said the former two-term governor of Iowa. In his written testimony, Vilsack said he would use USDA’s expertise on land stewardship “to work with farmers, ranchers and forest owners to create new sources of income tied to their good climate practices.”

The Trump administration used the Commodity Credit Corp, known as “USDA’s bank,” to pour billions of dollars of trade-war and pandemic relief money into the farm sector. Similarly, Vilsack said the CCC, able to spend up to $30 billion at a time before asking Congress for replenishment, would be “a great tool for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm bills about what will encourage carbon sequestration.” Congress is due to write the next farm bill in 2023.

There are think tank proposals to create a “carbon bank” at USDA, drawing on CCC funding, to encourage farmers to adopt “climate-smart practices.” The Climate 21 Project says a carbon bank could pay a guaranteed price to producers for each ton of carbon and greenhouse gas reductions achieved through better land management.

The CCC has wide latitude to support farm income and commodity prices. It was used, for example, to create an export subsidy program in the 1980s. And the White House used it to bypass Congress and create trade-war payments in 2018 and 2019.

Boozman, the senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee, said after the hearing that a carbon bank “is outside of the range” of the CCC portfolio; “it’s been tied directly to farmers,” reported Politico. Boozman also opposed an increase in CCC spending power to pay for an expansive carbon bank program.

To watch a video of the confirmation hearing or to read Vilsack’s written testimony, click here.