Cherry blossoms near the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) headquarters and Forest Service (FS) Yates Building in Washington, D.C., (source: USDA, photo by Lance Cheung / Public Domain)

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A bipartisan bill seeks to address climate change by placing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a leadership role over voluntary carbon credit markets. While proponents tout the benefits of voluntary conservation practices, critics say the approach will result in limited climate action rather than meaningful change. 

The Growing Climate Solutions Act would “break down barriers for farmers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets so they can be rewarded for climate-smart practices,” according to the Senate co-sponsors. 

The bill creates a certification program at USDA so that farmers and forest landowners can better participate in voluntary carbon credit markets that can help land managers pay for conservation practices, which in turn could help to store carbon in soil, trees, and ecosystem restoration projects. 

The bill’s lead sponsor is Senator Mike Braun, (R-IN) serving on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Braun is joined by the Committee’s lead Democrat, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), along with Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). Graham has voiced support for climate legislation in the past, and Whitehouse is considered one of the key Democratic experts on climate policy. 

“As a Main Street Entrepreneur and conservationist, I know firsthand that if we want to address our changing climate then we need to facilitate real solutions that our farmers, environmentalists, and industry can all support, which this bill accomplishes,” Senator Braun said in a statement announcing the bill. 

Senator Stabenow agreed with Braun, stating, “While farms and forests have been uniquely impacted by the climate crisis, they can also be an important part of the solution. Our bipartisan bill is a win-win for farmers, our economy, and our environment by providing new economic opportunities to store carbon while also addressing the climate crisis.” 

Many organizations and businesses, including American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, McDonald’s, and Microsoft support the bill.

Companion legislation is being proposed in the House of Representatives by Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and Don Bacon (R-NE). There are currently 9 other House co-sponsors from both parties. 

Not all agriculture and climate policy experts are excited about the bill and its potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Critics pointed most of their questions at Senator Stabenow. 

In an interview, Jake Davis of Local Root Strategies said “Senator Stabenow’s effort to help farmers and ranchers be part of the solution to the climate crisis is noble but voluntary carbon markets won’t be good for anyone but big polluters.” 

“This has been tried before and in other parts of the world. Most of the time the average independent family farm sees no benefit and those looking to purchase offsets just get them cheaper.”

Davis said of Stabenow, the Ranking Minority Member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, “I’m surprised the Senator wasn’t more eager to invest heavily in already existing USDA programs…programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program are already way oversubscribed and underfunded. You don’t have to look much further than the big agribusinesses endorsing the bill to see who wrote it and who the real winners will be,” Davis said.

Tara Ritter, a climate policy expert from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), had similar questions about Senator Stabenow’s leadership on climate legislation.

“Senator Stabenow is one of the leading Democrats in the Senate on agriculture and climate issues, and one of our biggest concerns is if this is going to be her take on climate policy this is not going to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions, Ritter said. 

We are all for farmers getting paid. Farmers need to get paid, they need to get compensated, but that is completely separate from effective climate policy,” said Ritter. 

“That’s the crux of it. If this was a fully third-party program where businesses are paying for carbon credits, and it wouldn’t be publicly funded and it wouldn’t be publicly supported and it wouldn’t be the in-effect government climate policy, that would be okay in some ways.” 

But the bill directs USDA’s attention, staff time, and dollars in a way that Ritter doesn’t think is going to address climate change effectively. “It’s public support for a supposed solution that isn’t going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and we really wish Congress would pour money into proven, successful conservation program,” Ritter said.