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Environment

Biden Administration Wants Agriculture Subsidies To Help Fight Climate Change

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

American taxpayers spend lots of money on farmers, a record $46 billion last year, that helps to keep farmers in business when the weather or the markets might otherwise put them under. Now the Biden administration wants agriculture subsidies to do something new - help fight climate change. Can that work? Frank Morris of member station KCUR looked into it.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Farmers have an uneasy relationship with climate change. While farming creates about 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., most farmers hate to admit it's a problem, and they certainly don't want to invite new regulations. But for those like Richard Oswald, standing just out of the rain in a shed on the Missouri farm where he grew up, climate change is personal and profound.

RICHARD OSWALD: Well, we've got a problem with climate. And I've been living in the middle of one of the biggest problems Missouri's had, and that's the flooding on the Missouri River that's been brought about by climate change.

MORRIS: Oswald and his son farm about 2,000 acres on the Missouri River, weather permitting.

OSWALD: Where we're standing right now, there was five feet of water here in 2019, flowing water for months. And the same thing happened in 2011. The biggest floods of my lifetime have happened within the same decade of each other.

MORRIS: As Oswald acknowledges that the world has changed, and he wants to do something about it. He doesn't plow his land. It's a practice known as no till, and it leaves plant roots in the ground. Plants take carbon dioxide out of the air when they grow and give it off when they rot. Of course, carbon dioxide is a primary driver of climate change, and keeping parts of the plants buried can slow the release of that greenhouse gas. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, speaking here on Illinois Public Radio, says the government should find ways to compensate farmers for storing carbon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM VILSACK: So it's about really expanding significantly farmer income, at the same time doing right by the environment.

MORRIS: Vilsack is ramping up the Conservation Reserve Program. The USDA will pay farmers more to take land out of production in hopes of adding another 4 million acres to the program. Vilsack says that would keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Another idea would be for the USDA to run a carbon bank where farmers would sell carbon credits to companies that want to take some of their own greenhouse gas emissions off the books. That's a popular approach. Even big, staunchly conservative farm groups are on board. But Anne Schechinger with the Environmental Working Group says it might not help.

ANNE SCHECHINGER: It could just be mostly income support for farmers and not really much about mitigating climate change at all.

MORRIS: That's because scientists don't really know how much carbon farmers can store in the soil or how long it'll stay there. Jessica Gutknecht, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota, says many of the farming practices that could be subsidized as a hedge against climate change are good for the environment. In other ways, it's just not clear that they would actually sequester a meaningful amount of carbon.

JESSICA GUTKNECHT: We just don't understand it that well or we don't understand how those processes play out across the landscape.

MORRIS: USDA concedes it's got a lot to learn about carbon sequestration on farms. And some critics say that paying farmers to lock up carbon is really just a marketing ploy to make costly new farm subsidies more palatable to taxpayers. Still, a growing number of farmers are taking a fresh look at climate change, not just as something to be denied or tolerated but as something they can help fight and maybe get paid for their trouble.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "PORCH SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.