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Panel: Crop insurance industry needs to figure out climate role

Bruce Knight

A panel of experts on conservation and agriculture told the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau annual meeting last week that the industry needs to figure out its role in fighting climate change as those policies are developed by the Biden administration and Congress.

Bruce Knight, a former chief of the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service and a prominent conservation consultant, said, “I see more opportunities than threats. The days of denial about climate are behind us now. I think you are going to see a lot of policy considerations, some of which you may see as opportunities, some of which you may see as threats.”

Knight pointed out that the cotton, rice and soybean industries “all have tangible sustainability goals” while other sectors are in the process of setting theirs. The dairy industry already has set a goal of zero emissions, he noted.



Callie Eideberg of the Environmental Defense Fund noted that EDF has been instrumental in establishing the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance.

“As an environmental organization, we are laser-focused on environmental outcomes,” Eideberg said, adding that EDF is looking “for real results, real outcomes that are science-based.”



Working with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the alliance was able to identify 40 policy recommendations “that were enthusiastically supported,” Eideberg said.

Jonathan Coppess, a University of Illinois professor who served as administrator of the Farm Service Agency in the Obama administration and has been a member of the Biden-Harris agriculture review team, said, “We have an administration that is going to be moving boldly and relatively quickly.”

The current question, Coppess said, is: “How can the administration set up pilots to work the kinks out? That will feed into Congress later for the 2023 farm bill. That can get us into a better design phase in 2022 and 2023.”

Josh Tonsager of the National Association of Wheat Growers said that if farmers are going to be expected to undertake certain practices, there will be a question of what to do in drier areas where farmers won’t want to plant cover crops because they would take moisture away from the main crop.

“We need a better sense of what happens to farmers who don’t undertake it — will they be penalized?” Tonsager said.

Eideberg added, “We need to start figuring out if there is something different that works in drier or wetter climates. Some cropping patterns are going to change.”

Coppess asked if risk will be incorporated into actuarial policies or farm subsidies.

Asked by Mike Torrey, CIRB’s executive vice president and Washington lobbyist, what the industry should do, Knight said the industry should consider the concept of “ecosystem service management.”

There is a question, Knight said, about whether carbon should be avoided or its sequestration considered a commodity. “If carbon becomes a commodity, is it insurable?” Knight asked. “What if I get three years of drought and don’t perform on my carbon?” Nongovernment organizations say they don’t trust farmers and are afraid farmers will buy a disk and disk up the carbon they were supposed to be sequestering, Knight added.

Knight said that in recent years most of the activism on climate policy has been in corporate boards. In the future, Coppess said, he would look toward Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., for whom he once worked, and to the land grant universities. Stabenow has already said she believes carbon is a commodity.

“This is an industry whose expertise will be critical to policy formation,” Coppess said. “This is a plea to the industry to be a productive player.”


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