Agriculture In Focus Under Biden Climate Policy
President Biden’s January 27, 2021 Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” ("the Order”) focuses unprecedented attention on the role that agriculture can play in combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Specifically highlighting opportunities to promote carbon sequestration in soils and the sourcing of sustainable bioproducts and fuels, the Order anticipates harnessing the involvement of individual growers, ranchers, and forest landowners in the Administration’s wider efforts in order to “avoid the most catastrophic impacts of [the climate] crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents.”
Significantly, the Order requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to engage with a range of stakeholders to explore opportunities to encourage the voluntary adoption of “climate-smart” agricultural and forestry practices. In addition to carbon sequestration, climate-smart agriculture refers to a broad range of practices and technologies that can increase sustainable productivity, enhance resilience to climate-related risks, and reduce carbon emissions. These can include regenerative farming techniques, which utilize practices such as conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, and composting to improve soil health, as well as agricultural biotechnology, which can be employed to develop new crop varieties with increased yields and improved climate and disease tolerance.
Seeking to achieve “additional, measurable, and verifiable” carbon reductions and sequestration through agriculture, the Order builds on the Biden campaign’s earlier commitments to decarbonize the food and agriculture sector and leverage research in soil management, plant biology, and agricultural techniques to remove carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the ground. In his February 2, 2021 Senate confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee for USDA head Tom Vilsack also suggested that USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) can be used to support grower efforts to fight climate change, including through the creation of a market to trade carbon or help farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices. The government-owned CCC was established in 1933 and has the authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the U.S. Treasury to help support farm income, agricultural product prices, and conservation programs.
In addition to Mr. Vilsak, Robert Bonnie recently joined USDA as its deputy chief of staff for policy and senior advisor on climate. Mr. Bonnie has extensive experience with nature-based climate mitigation policies and formerly served as the USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment from 2013-2017. Under President Biden, USDA is likely to build on its current programs in this area, while parallel legislative efforts—such as the Growing Climate Solutions Act—may find bi-partisan support and an eventual path towards becoming law. These actions are likely to converge towards a new set of incentive programs aimed at fostering GHG reduction and sequestration practices in agriculture sector. Precisely how these programs shape up will depend in part on input from stakeholders—interested farmers, growers, ranchers, and agriculture businesses should stay tuned.