A ‘big bet’ for climate smart ag (Editorial)
When framework of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load plan was unveiled more than two decades ago, then-Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee succinctly described it as a “big bet” for the watershed.
In essence, if the watershed states and sectors, especially agriculture, implement practices and upgrades by the plan’s set milestones, the TMDL wager would lead to a restored Bay.
But any bet has risk, and while the plan is based in research with the most up-to-date modeling tools and supported with massive funding at the federal and state levels, the projected outcome isn’t guaranteed. As the plan closes in on two years before it’s ultimate deadline in 2025, how much of a win it will be remains to be seen.
With USDA’s announcement of the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities, a $2.8 billion for 70 pilot projects aimed at reducing U.S. agriculture’s carbon footprint, farmers are at the center of another big bet, and the stakes are even higher.
Ranging in size from $5 million to $100 million, the partnership comes on the heels of $19.5 billion in the recently-passed Inflation Reduction Act, earmarked for funding the adoption of climate smart practices on farmland.
“The funds will pay for, incent and encourage pilot projects that are innovative and cost effective that also include methods for quantifying, monitoring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas benefits and carbon sequestration benefits, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said of the piloted projects. “And they’ll help to develop and expand markets for climate smart commodities.”
Many of the pilot projects brought together multiple states, large corporations and other organizations, with the overall goal of sequestering 50 million tons of carbon dioxide. The first wave of projects is estimated to involve 50,000 farmers and 20 million to 25 million acres.
Following the USDA’s announcement, a wave of news releases from partnership grant winners flooded our inbox, touting the work that will be done toward making farms and farmland more resilient against climate change and mitigate their impact. If the pilots are completed, the private sector will have contributed $1.4 billion to the effort.
Take for instance, the Climate SMART project, funded up to $90 million and lead by Truterra.
This project will reach across 28 states, and “aims to catalyze a self-sustaining, market-based network to broaden farmer access, scale adoption of climate-smart practices, and sustainably produce grain and dairy commodities with verified and quantified climate benefits.”
But not everyone was eager to take the bet. Interestingly, environmental groups and Congressional Republicans opposed the project; the environmentalists calling it a corporate payoff to some of the world’s largest polluters and the legislators criticizing it for drawing it’s funding from the Commodity Credit Corporation which services the commodity payment programs to farmers.
Like the TMDL, it will take decades to truly see if the billions wagered on building a climate smart agriculture industry was a sound investment in reducing the nation’s carbon emissions or just a governmental spending spree. Chances are it falls somewhere in between.
Not every project will be a success, but whether it is 10 percent that flop or 50 percent or 80 percent, again, we don’t know.
But with each hit or miss, farmers will learn more about how to withstand what Mother Nature throws at them.
And when it comes to farmers being resilient, we’ll bet on them every time.