Land set-aside is part of climate progress, not greenwashing, says Vilsack

The Biden administration is launching a portfolio of projects to reach its goal of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases on the farm, including a new focus on climate mitigation by the Conservation Reserve Program, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. During an Earth Day teleconference, he rejected the suggestion that carbon sequestration in the CRP was a form of greenwashing.

“You have to look at all of the opportunities that will be created over a period of years to determine whether we are making progress,” said Vilsack on Thursday. “The CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] is an important piece. By no means is it the only piece.”

Agriculture is responsible for some 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases. Farm groups, which were key to derailing climate legislation during the Obama era, now generally say they are willing to take action against global warming if the effort is voluntary and market-based. The Biden administration says climate mitigation will create new sources of revenue, such as carbon markets.

On Thursday, the USDA announced $487 million in loans and grants for rural water and sewer projects, renewable energy systems for farms and small businesses, the installation of new fuel pumps and storage tanks for higher blends of ethanol in gasoline, and rural electrification. The announcement came a day after the USDA unveiled a plan to retool the Conservation Reserve, including enrolling 4 million additional acres in the program, which pays landowners an annual rent if they idle environmentally fragile farmland for 10 years or longer.

Some environmental groups see carbon markets as greenwashing, since companies buy credits for carbon sequestration that absolve them of reducing emissions on their own. A reporter asked Vilsack if sequestration on Conservation Reserve land should be viewed as temporary, because the land could return to production in a few years.

“The key is we continue to have a commitment to the CRP as a solution, one of many solutions, in terms of how we’re going to reach the goals that the president has set for 2030,” responded Vilsack. The USDA offers an array of stewardship programs, aimed at working lands and livestock operations, and easements to preserve grasslands in addition to setting aside marginal land.

While enrollment in the Conservation Reserve may ebb and flow, the goal is “on balance, over time, you essentially make significant progress toward a net-zero future,” said Vilsack.

The administration set a goal in January of conserving at least 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal waters by 2030. The “30 by 30” goal has been criticized as vague. “Lots of people talking about a land grab,” said a broadcast reporter to Vilsack.

“I can assure you there is no intention to have a land grab,” replied Vilsack. “It is really designed to figure out creative and innovative ways to encourage folks to participate” in land stewardship.

Vilsack also was skeptical about arguments that adding land to the Conservation Reserve would be a signal to competitor nations in the world grain market to expand their plantings. Commodity prices are booming now after years in the doldrums.

“This announcement is not going to create additional pressure for deforestation,” he said.

Some 20.8 million acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve at the moment, equal to 6.6 percent of U.S. cropland. Enrollment peaked at 36.8 million acres in 2007, at the start of a six-year boom, and has declined annually since then.