An Unlikely Alliance of Farm and Environmental Groups Takes on Climate Change

The new group will try to advance climate policies, even as some of its members are likely to clash. Critics say the group’s efforts won’t go far enough.

Nov 18, 2020
An aerial view of mostly harvested farmland at sunset on Oct. 30, 2020 in Lacona, Iowa. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

An aerial view of mostly harvested farmland at sunset on Oct. 30, 2020 in Lacona, Iowa. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the country's largest and most powerful agricultural lobbying group, has long pushed against climate legislation and worked closely with the fossil fuel industry to defeat it. 

But on Tuesday, the Farm Bureau announced it had joined an unlikely alliance of food, forest, farming and environment groups that intends to work with Congress and the incoming Biden administration to reduce the food system's role in climate change and reward farmers when they lower their greenhouse gas emissions. 

"To be honest, we didn't know whether we would ultimately reach an agreement," said Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall in a call with reporters. "We're proud to have broken through historical barriers to achieve an unique alliance."  

Members of the new group, called the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, include the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the National Council of Farm Cooperatives and the National Farmers Union, among others. The organizations have been meeting for the better part of the last year and formally unveiled their partnership Tuesday.

"We're not going to agree with them on everything going forward," said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. "But It was remarkable how we could find some common ground."

The Washington-based agriculture lobbying powerhouse, the Russell Group, whose clients include high-profile agriculture, pharmaceutical and tobacco corporations, is overseeing the effort. 

"One of the principal reasons that previous efforts to enact climate legislation have failed was that the agriculture, forestry and food industry communities were not unified," said Randy Russell, the group's founder, who said the goal of the alliance was to "work across the value chain."

On Tuesday, the new group unveiled a set of 40 policy proposals that its members hope could make their way into legislation, be carried out through executive order or changed administratively under a Biden administration. The administration has said it wants to enlist farmers and the farming industry in climate solutions, including through U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that help farmers more easily participate in carbon markets.

The group's recommendations range across six broad categories, including soil health, food waste and agriculture research. They include a proposal to give tax credits to farmers who can prove that they've stashed carbon in their soils and a USDA-led "carbon bank" that would set a minimum amount that farmers would be paid for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The food system generates about one-quarter to one-third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions and increasingly has drawn the focus of policy makers. Reaching the necessary emissions cuts to keep warming under 2 degrees from pre-industrial levels will require an all-out effort—one that will fail unless food manufacturers and farmers are part of the solution, research finds. Most recently, a report from University of Oxford researchers, published in the journal Science, found that the food system alone will generate enough emissions to blow past the more ambitious 1.5-degree target of the Paris Climate agreement within four decades. 

Emissions from the U.S. agriculture system have continued to climb. 

Some critics on Tuesday applauded the group's efforts, but said they would fall far short of the transformational changes needed in agriculture. 

"These recommendations dodge some of the most important challenges for agriculture—namely, how do we facilitate a transition away from the primary ag-related sources of emissions: the overuse of synthetic fertilizers and the continued expansion of large-scale animal feeding operations and their excess manure," said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "Voluntary, incentive-based approaches are important, but as long as this industrial system of production is in place, it will be difficult to get deeper traction at the speed with which is needed to meet the climate crisis."

The farm economy, stung by the Trump administration's trade wars with China and struggling with low commodity prices, has been cratering in recent years. Creating opportunities for farmers to sequester carbon in soils and forests—with tax credits or other incentives—and to participate in voluntary carbon markets, would give the industry a much-needed boost.

This is likely what has led to the industry's new embrace of climate-related programs. 

Led by the Farm Bureau, the industry has long fought off any kind of environmental regulation.  The Farm Bureau's "policy book"—an annual document that guides the group's political efforts—explicitly says it does not support regulating greenhouse gas emissions from American farming operations. This year, the Farm Bureau's members voted to approve an amendment to the policy book, saying it opposed "any laws or policies that implicate agricultural activity of any kind as a cause for climate change without empirical evidence."

The Farm Bureau has officially stated it doubts that climate change is caused by human activity. Farm Bureau officials instead refer to "volatile weather" and "weather extremes," when explaining the onslaught of droughts, floods and freak storms that have besieged American farms in recent years. 

When asked Tuesday whether any new science has emerged to shift the organization's positions, Duvall pointed to the policy book as evidence of the group's acceptance of climate science and said, "Our farmers have been working on climate change for decades."

All the proposals released Tuesday are voluntary. 

"We have established some common ground," Duvall said. "As long as there's something our farmers can move into and not be forced, we think we can do a better job."

The Farm Bureau's board of directors approved the recommendations. "Farmers and ranchers want partnerships, not mandates, and the recommendations laid out by FACA make it clear that we would like a seat at the table when it comes to climate solutions," Duvall said later, in a statement.

Climate denial is culturally and politically entrenched among many of the Farm Bureau's 6 million members, who have been a formidable political ally to President Donald Trump. Farm Bureau members have expressed concern that a Biden administration will undo environmental rule changes that the farm industry has pushed for, including killing an Obama-era rule that sought to regulate farm water pollution. 

In bringing together the new alliance, members stressed that the farm industry had to be involved in order to get buy-in on the climate proposals or the effort risked foisting blame and stoking resentment in agricultural communities.

"We wanted the farm, ranch community in at the ground level and to start with their priorities in mind, and I think that changes the conversion in a way that's helpful to find a path going forward," said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Farmers are seeing the impact [of climate change] on their land, and regardless of what you want to call it or how you want it described, there's an increased recognition that something's happening and there needs to be some sort of response."

Members say they believe the alliance can help boost the chances of two pieces of climate legislation introduced this year, including the Growing Climate Solutions Act, designed to help farmers participate in carbon markets, and the Rural Forests Markets Act, intended to help family forest owners find climate-sequestering strategies. 

"We need to significantly scale up sustainable practices on farms and in forests that benefit producers and address the climate crisis. It's great to see agriculture, forestry and environmental leaders teaming up to advance commonsense climate solutions," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, in a press release Tuesday. "I look forward to reviewing their recommendations and working with them to enact many of these policies into law."

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