Do conservation subsidies really battle climate change?

The Conservation Reserve Program, which will pay farmers more than $1.8 billion this year to take land out of crop cultivation, has become a linchpin of the Biden administration’s climate mitigation program for agriculture. But critics question just how effective the program is in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions generated by agriculture, reports Leah Douglas in FERN’s latest story, produced in collaboration with The American Prospect.

Much of the land, which enters the program under 10- to 15-year contracts, is planted with grasses or trees, which do sequester carbon. But once those contracts end, so do the benefits. “After that, the vast majority of the land is tilled again for crop production, causing carbon that was stored in the soil to be released back into the atmosphere. The agency doesn’t take this rather significant flaw into account when calculating the program’s carbon benefits,” Douglas writes.

The farming sector contributes about 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from animal-produced methane and fertilizers used in crop production. Biden said early in his presidency that he wants the U.S. agriculture sector to be the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions, and conservation programs have been one of the regulatory tools of choice to get there. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has endorsed Biden’s vision, saying his goal in getting more land in conservation is “to make sure that there is profitability in whatever it is we create so that the right set of incentives are in place.”

But with commodity prices at an eight-year high, farmers have naturally responded by planting as many of their acres as possible with moneymaking crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Although the government has responded by raising the price of conservation subsidies, the amount of land in the Conservation Reserve has been on a downward slope since at least 2008.

You can read the full story at FERN or at The American Prospect.