Conner: Vilsack wise to launch carbon market development initiative

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to launch an initiative to develop carbon as an agricultural commodity will make it easier for him to use the Commodity Credit Corporation to address climate change issues, Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, said today, Oct. 6, during a panel discussion at the Consumer Federation of America National Food Policy Conference.

Conner, a Republican, is a former Senate Agriculture Committee chief of staff, agriculture deputy secretary and acting secretary.

The CCC, a USDA line of credit at the treasury established during the Great Depression to give the agriculture secretary broad authority to help farmers, can help farmers with commodities, Conner said, and Vilsack’s decision to work on climate “in the context of a commodity” will help him “preserve the notion that he can use the CCC.”

In the early days of the Biden administration, Vilsack talked about using CCC funds to establish a carbon bank, but that concept proved controversial. Last week in a speech at Colorado State University, Vilsack said, “I want to be clear: This initiative is not a carbon bank, nor a carbon market. It’s not even a conservation program.”

Vilsack continued, “This initiative is first and foremost a commodity program, one that seeks to empower farmers, ranchers, producers and foresters to produce climate-smart commodities, meeting domestic and global consumer demand.”

Vilsack needs to stay focused on the development of carbon as a commodity that can be marketed, Conner said, because that gives him the strongest authority to use the CCC. If Vilsack can’t use the CCC, Conner said, he will have to turn to Congress, which will be “a cumbersome process.”

“We need to get going on this now,” added Conner, who is co-chair of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which includes the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Another panelist, Jason Weller, a vice president of Truterra, a Land O’Lakes sustainability program, called Vilsack’s Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative “an innovative approach” because it “allows private industry to come forward.”

Weller, a Democrat, is a former chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Trey Hill, owner/manager of Harborview Farms in Maryland, who has long experience in planting cover crops, said that the income from saving carbon is so far so low it must be considered a “stackable” event on top of a farmer’s income from commodity sales. The income from carbon must be increased if it is going to be appealing to farmers, Hill said.

Colin O’Neil, legislative director of the Environmental Working Group, said that, while the transportation industry has decreased its carbon footprint, carbon emissions are still rising in agriculture. The government needs to focus on “smart conservation” projects, not just those that are “akin to infrastructure improvement projects.” USDA should also encourage the development of the plant-based food industry, he said.

But O’Neil added that agriculture groups need to come together to mount a unified effort to save the $28 billion set aside for conservation in the Build Back Better Act if the size of that now $3.5 trillion bill is reduced.


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