Rep. Pingree highlights role of farmers in fighting climate change

Maine Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree rolled out a five-point plan to “support farmers in the fight against climate change,” offering a contrast to the Green New Deal announced earlier this year, which largely sidestepped agricultural issues and came under criticism for not engaging with farmers.

“Farmers have a critical role to play in reversing the effects of climate change by improving soil health and increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil,” Pingree, a prominent supporter of sustainable ag, said at an event at Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Windham, Maine. “New technology is helping farmers more easily measure and quantify the outcomes of conservation practices, but there are missing pieces in the infrastructure needed to make that a widespread reality. Any climate solutions must also make economic sense for farmers, so market and policy incentives will be important components.”

Market initiatives currently in gestation would pay farmers for storing carbon in the soil, which helps slow climate change. Although agriculture accounts for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, farming can also be tailored to increase carbon sequestration. One of the largest programs, recently announced by a partnership of NGOS and major companies, would place a value on such carbon-building practices as no-till farming and cover crops, which build organic matter in the soil by pulling carbon out of the air.

In an interview with FERN’s Ag Insider, Pingree said that while she signed on and supported New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, she didn’t think “there was enough elaboration on agriculture.” Pingree said her plan hopes to broaden the conversation, highlighting the positive role that farming can play in mitigation.

She doesn’t see a role for the federal government in providing green payments for these carbon farming practices, though she said the USDA could offer technical assistance in measuring the amount of carbon farmers store. Right now, a major issue with nascent carbon markets is quantifying those measurements so that farmers can participate in these markets.

In contrast to recent reports that have highlighted the impact of meat consumption on carbon emissions, Pingree did not call for eating less meat. Instead, she highlighted the role pasture-based meat production can play in reducing emissions.

She laid out five initiatives in her plan:

  • Build healthy soil. The government needs to “maintain, expand, and continually improve” working lands programs and conservation initiatives. “We need to address any remaining program barriers to adoption of soil health practices, raise soil health as a program priority across the board, and boost outreach and education efforts.”
  • Protect farmland and improve farm viability. “We need to keep farmers on the land. Taking farmland out of production for development purposes means that we’re not just losing food production capacity, we’re also losing soil carbon sequestration capacity.”
  • Support pasture-based livestock systems. “Pasture-based livestock systems, especially under management-intensive rotational grazing systems, can help to place and keep more carbon in the soil. We need to prioritize pasture-based livestock systems in agriculture research and marketing programs as part of any climate mitigation and adaptation effort. We also need to continue advancing ways to reduce methane emissions from livestock through improved feed and other innovative means.”
  • Invest in rural energy. “Investing in programs that support energy production on farms and in rural communities, such as USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, can help to alleviate the financial barriers to rural energy efficiency.”
  • Reduce food waste. “We need to support food waste reduction efforts throughout the entire supply chain so that food does not end up in a landfill. At the farm level, encouraging and incentivizing the processing and consumption of imperfect product can create new markets for farmers and provide economically viable opportunities for farmers to harvest food that would otherwise stay in the field.”

Pingree said she hoped her plan would educate lawmakers on the role farming could play in mitigating climate change, while also highlighting market-based initiatives such as carbon farming. “I’m interested in taking it further,” she said, hoping that her fellow lawmakers “will start to understand the economic opportunities for farmers.”