Words like climate change and carbon feel almost taboo enough in the agriculture sector to warrant censoring. Whether the industry is ready or not, everyday aspects of agricultural production are being pulled into a blinding and unflattering spotlight. In order to resume business as usual, farmer-friendly policy makers are working to dispel myths about agriculture’s role in the global environment.
During a webinar hosted by the University of Arkansas National Agricultural Law Center, Andrew Walmsley, American Farm Bureau’s director of congressional relations, spoke about the efforts policy makers and lobbyists are contributing to challenging aspects of the Green New Deal.
Ten to 12 years ago, agriculture wasn’t consulted on the onset of climate bills being drafted, Walmsley said the result was policy that was harmful or threatening to agricultural practices and many people still function on those memories.
Times have changed. Progress has partially been driven by producer awareness, legislation and commitments in the private sector. But, there is still a lack of understanding from the general public and some lawmakers about the reality of the role agriculture plays in greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
“Roughly two years ago, the Green New Deal kicked off a lot of conversation and consternation across the countryside and across Capitol Hill,” Walmsley said. “We obviously feel that that's not a policy that's viable or very profitable for American agriculture, but what that initial introduction did was provide an opportunity for the agricultural community to come together in a way we hadn't been in a while on this specific issue.”
The release of the Green New Deal kicked off producer initiatives like Farmers for a Sustainable Future and the Food and Agricultural Climate Alliance. Involved parties on Capitol Hill wanted to examine and explain why U.S agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to the rest of the world.
Walmsley said despite the cold nature of the numbers, agriculture’s role in greenhouse gas emissions and food production is actually a good story to tell.
“You know the latest numbers from around the world of shows [other agriculture] close to 25% while we're at roughly 10%,” Walmsley said. “I would argue, one of the big reasons for that is in roughly two generations or so, we have increased our agricultural productivity by over 280% while our inputs remained relatively flat.”
Walmsely said key points to use in lobbying are sustainable intensification and the decrease in unit of emissions per unit of output.
A wide variety of market incentives and voluntary incentives are helping increase change, as well as the introduction of biotechnology and precision agriculture.
“The key to sustainability for us as profitability,” Walmsley said. “It does us no good put any type of mandates or additional standards or create programs that are unworkable to simply puts farmers out of business. So, how do we do this in a way that drives innovation, that makes improvements in the environment and provide societal benefits?”
Walmsley said COVID-19 allowed lobbyists, policy makers and shareholders to communicate more effectively and openly than ever before about key issues facing agriculture.
“As Washington shut down and many of us were sequestered to our home offices and provided a unique opportunity that might not have existed in the hustle and bustle of normal times,” Walmsley said. “But, it really was able in a unique way to build a relationship you saw look into each other's homes, we all know, each other's kids and pets at this point.”
The task force Walmsley worked with identified three key principles to follow when approaching climate policies. The first was to put forward voluntary markets instead of base. The second was to pursue options grounded in science with science-based outcomes. And the last was to do no harm, whether that be to farmer and rancher livelihood and profitability or to the environment.
He said it’s critical to lay ground rules and continue pursuing policy reform in order to avoid policies that hurt American agriculture.
“If you've been around Washington any amount of time you hear this cliché that if you're not at the table, then you're on the menu,” Walmsley said. “What we really wanted to do was set the table, and so we feel like we've been doing that going forward.”
Public policy often seems to lock farmers in to inevitable change, but opportunities for environmental practices in the private sector can help early-adopting producers profit.
Carbon markets aren’t a new concept for farmers, but they can change rapidly and information about them is often proprietary. That reality often makes it difficult to feel comfortable jumping in to a long term contract for relatively small incentives.
“Essentially, carbon or environmental markets are voluntary, incentive-based national markets that put buyers and sellers of ag ecosystem credits together in a marketplace so that those exchanges can occur,” said Farm Bureau economist Shelby Swain Myers. “We're going to talk about them as an ecosystem credits because we're not just talking about carbon.”
Farmers looking to earn money in the environmental marketplace can opt into a data monitoring or measurement system that collects data to verify their practices, which can be incentivized.
“They come in two different forms — there's the paper practice which is usually in the form of a per acre payment,” Myers said. “And then there's a pay for outcome and that usually comes in a per metric ton of carbon sequestering or per metric ton of methane captured.”
Myers said it’s important to note the type of contract because farmers and ranchers need to be aware of what they're signing up for, especially if the price is explicit in their contract.
Contracts can vary in length anywhere from five to 100 years and can come in the form of water credits, greenhouse gas credits, credits biodiversity etc. Most contracts require third party verification and are purchased by companies to meet private and professional standards.
“Credits are being purchased by corporations or food corporations, who are trying to streamline their supply chains to be more of a larger green plant or make commitments their consumers, their employees, or maybe they've got government compliance standards that they have to meet,” Myers said.
Currently, Myers said carbon credit contracts can run anywhere from $10 to $20 per acre payments, according to a Purdue survey.