WASHINGTON — Democrats are eyeing proposals that would support programs for U.S. farmers — including Georgians who have suffered catastrophic losses from severe weather events in recent years — to reduce carbon emissions on their land.
In his first major policy hearing as House Agriculture Committee chairman, Georgia Rep. David Scott said Thursday that the issue of climate change would be key for his panel this year. He wants to encourage farmers to adopt more conservation practices that can mitigate climate change.
“This is perhaps the single most important hearing that we must have right now because agriculture is our single most important industry,” the Atlanta Democrat said at the hearing with climate and agriculture experts. “And they, more than any other entity or industry, suffer more and benefit from climate and weather.”
Scott, the first Black chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, identified climate change, racial inequities within the agriculture industry and food insecurity as his top priorities for this year.
He called on agricultural producers and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to try to come together to find agreement on the issue — even though climate change has been divisive.
“This is critical. I want us to move forward with this with an open heart and an open mind,” Scott said.
Greenhouse gas emissions from ag
About 10% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, according to a report from the EPA. Agriculture can also be a source of carbon offsets through soil management, cover crops, conservation projects and forestry.
Recent research suggests that a global effort to replenish soil and remove carbon already in the atmosphere could result in a 10% carbon reduction.
Meanwhile, the severe weather events associated with climate change are causing havoc for American farmers.
“Weather is becoming more volatile as the earth warms at an alarming rate and that puts the very people who make a living off the land, American farmers, in the crosshairs of economic peril,” Atlanta’s Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore told lawmakers at the hearing.
Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, said he would support more investment in conservation, as long as money is not diverted from other agriculture programs.
“If money is currently set aside for agriculture producers, I don’t want to see that money moved into environmental policy, and this is coming from someone who thinks we can and should take better care of the environment,” Scott said.
Federal mandates on climate change could become a “Trojan horse to regulate every aspect” of production,'” said Rep. Rick Allen who represents an east Georgia district with large swaths of farmland, mid-sized cities and Southern Company’s massive and troubled Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion. “What the two sides of the aisle disagree over is not really climate change, we all want to be good stewards, what we disagree over is the power of the government,” Allen said.
The hearing comes as the Biden administration considers options to incorporate agriculture in its plans for ”net-zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said he wants to support and create incentives for farmers, ranchers and foresters to use more environmentally friendly practices.
Vilsack said in his confirmation hearing that he would like to build markets to pay farmers to sequester carbon and capture and reuse methane. The Senate voted 92-7 Tuesday to confirm Vilsack as agriculture secretary, and he was sworn in on Wednesday.
Republicans at the hearing said they are open to discussion on climate and agriculture, but insisted that any programs for farmers should be voluntary.
“If you’re not at the table, you are probably on the menu, and for too long the agriculture sector has been on the menu when it comes to climate. The hearing today begins to pull us up to the table,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, (R-Pa.).
Thompson and other Republicans want to avoid regulations that would mandate carbon reductions. They also want to keep any climate change programs for farms under the authority of the Agriculture Department, not the EPA.
“Our approach must favor pro-growth solutions over regulations,” said Thompson. “There has been a lot of talk about legislation or executive action, but I believe many of these are a solution in search of a problem.”
Momentum could build on Capitol Hill this year, with Democrats controlling the agenda in both chambers.
Scott, who has also expressed support for rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, is more in line with Democratic leadership on climate than his predecessor, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota. Peterson was a conservative Democrat who frequently voted in line with Republicans.
One significant proposal is the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, (D-Mich.), and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, (D-Va.), each introduced last year.
Spanberger told colleagues at the hearing that she would reintroduce it in the coming weeks, along with more targeted legislation on healthy soil and resilient farmers.
“Agriculture can be and is part of the solution in addressing climate change,” Spanberger said, noting that she would continue to explore the issue as chair of the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
Her proposal directs the Agriculture Department to develop a program to assist farmers in participating in carbon markets and establish a system to certify third-party vendors. Participation would be voluntary.
Former Georgia GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue recently completed his job as agriculture secretary under former President Donald Trump but Georgians remain in influential farming policy positions in Washington after the state just delivered Democrats the presidency and two U.S. Senate seats. Sen. Raphael Warnock is a new member of his chamber’s Agricultural Committee and he says he is focused on helping Black farmers.
Georgia Recorder Editor John McCosh contributed to this report.