By Dennis Nuxoll, Vice President, Federal Government Affairs and
Tracey Chow, Government Affairs Specialist
Climate change and sustainability are concepts that have been around for a long time. Many buyers have been launching various sustainability campaigns that Western Growers members have had to adhere to, and several state and local governments have also been focused on environmental sustainability. President Joe Biden has returned to this theme in a major way with a focus on climate change-related sustainability. Let’s explore what the federal government might be undertaking, as well as how that could impact your operations.
Early in its transition period, the Biden Administration made it clear that it intended to quickly follow through with one of its top campaign promises and address climate change. It released a preliminary proposal—the Climate 21 Project—that is extremely comprehensive, laying out proposals for nearly every federal agency.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the intent is wide ranging, touching upon a variety of topics such as tapping into crop insurance to incentivize climate-friendly practices, improving forest management, refocusing research and development, using rural development programs to build climate friendly projects, and enhancing conservation programs. The headliner proposal is a USDA-run carbon bank, through which it would offer to buy carbon and greenhouse gas reductions from producers at a guaranteed price.
State of Play & Prospects
As of this writing, the progress of these proposals has been slow and piecemeal. USDA has solicited climate change comments from the public to add detail to many of the general concepts and guide its next phase of program design. In Congress, aspects of the Biden proposal have been introduced as stand-alone legislation, including the carbon bank proposal. Weaving some proposals into larger legislative vehicles, such as upcoming transportation and infrastructure bills, is one very likely path forward. Looking further ahead, the Farm Bill will expire in 2023, and climate policies will be a central discussion point.
Western Growers Position
As an influential voice for the fresh produce industry, WG has already had several opportunities to weigh in with federal decision-makers about our needs and perspectives, including the aforementioned public comment period. The underpinning message we are proactively reinforcing is two-fold.
First, the administration should pursue voluntary, incentive-based policies and initiatives, to both encourage new adoption of climate-friendly practices or tools and support the existing work and progress countless farmers have already undertaken. To the administration’s credit, all the proposals it has put forward and are asking for public comment upon are voluntary and incentive based; regulatory solutions are not being pushed.
Second, any such policies and initiatives must account for the vast differences of the specialty crop sector that occur at a varietal, geographical, and financial level. Produce farming is inherently more cost-intensive and generally grown on higher-value land than nearly any other agricultural segment, so compensation and support must reflect the financial cost. Unfortunately, most of the proposals and activity so far in Washington—both in the legislative and executive branches—do not account for the vast differences between fruit, vegetable and tree nut production and other types of agricultural sector production systems. Most of the effort focuses on the livestock sector (e.g., methane digesters for dairy, improved grazing land systems for cattle) or commodity row crops (e.g., expanding no-till systems).
We believe that there are multiple opportunities for the produce sector as the federal government ramps up efforts around climate change and sustainability. We highlight a few here that the industry could explore and areas we will push with USDA:
1. Packing sheds. At the packing shed level, we believe there are several areas where USDA programs can increase efficiency to reduce carbon emissions while also saving companies money. Biomass systems can be installed as a cleaner way to deal with agricultural green waste (e.g., vines, tree branches, leaves) than burning or chipping while also providing renewable energy. Digesters could be utilized beyond dairy for the produce sector since they can work to convert ag waste into renewable energy. A focus on food packaging could help lower carbon footprints while also improving efficiency. Finally, identifying ways to reduce food waste and keep more edible food in the supply chain longer would expand the reach of our products to more consumers who enjoy them.
2. Orchard crops. Orchard crops provide some unique opportunities that haven’t fully been considered by carbon systems. Just looking at almonds, a 2015 report by the University of California, Davis found that 1 kilogram of California almonds typically results in less than 1 kilogram of CO2 emissions. Moreover, current almond farming practices are offsetting roughly 50 percent of these emissions, as the industry has made strides to improve its air quality impact, water usage, and orchard recycling methods. Furthermore, as USDA considers providing crop insurance incentives for carbon-reducing conservation practices, orchard crops—which routinely use crop insurance—could be prime candidates.
3. Field grown produce. Most of the USDA carbon efforts around crops focus on strategies like no-till which do not neatly suit field grown produce. However, that does not mean that our opportunities will vanish. For example, exploration of new pesticide and fertilizer management techniques and technologies could help producers reduce carbon emissions, as well as save money while maintaining yield.
4. Energy savings. One area that USDA can help producers in all aspects of the industry is around comprehensive whole on-farm energy audits to provide recommendations for how energy conservation and efficiency can be achieved. Beyond that, USDA programs can be utilized toward energy efficiency upgrades for agricultural buildings and facilities. USDA also could have programs that incentivize or assist farmers with swapping or upgrading to newer, cleaner tools and systems. As one potential model, since 2017 California has operated the Funding Agricultural Replacement Measures for Emission Reductions (FARMER) Program, which provides funding through local air districts for upgrading agricultural harvesting equipment, heavy-duty trucks, agricultural pump engines, tractors, and other equipment used in agricultural operations.
Overlap with Private Sector and States
Many of you may be thinking that some of this is old hat. You are already involved with or familiar with some of the opportunities described above because there are state programs—such as the California Healthy Soil Initiative—or buyer sustainability programs that undertake some of these practices. We agree; we think that there is some work to build on as we explore these federal opportunities.
We firmly believe that this topic is not going away. A focus on environmental sustainability has only increased over the years. Today, most buyers have some type of program, and the level of complexity only seems to be getting higher. Given the degree of overlap between private sector focus and public sector opportunity, it is common sense for Western Growers to help shape the federal program and opportunities on behalf of its members.
While we know that many of you are involved in some of these environmental sustainability efforts, we want to learn about what you are doing to better shape our advocacy. We encourage you to reach out to us, the authors, with your story or questions.