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UPDATE: This column was updated on Nov. 7, 2022, with the exact date grants were announced.

Climate change believers by and large say that for decades Big Agriculture has spewed huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. And they're not wrong. EPA estimates that agriculture accounted for 11.2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. So it's quite obvious that in order to combat climate change the feds and state governments must begin to rein in ag pollution. 

Easier said than done. But ya got to go with the cards you're dealt.

So it was refreshing to see in September USDA announcing it's investing $2.8 billion in a carrot and stick approach to get farmers to adopt climate-smart production practices.

USDA's shiny new Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities is supposed to “expand markets for America’s climate-smart commodities, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodity production, and provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture, including for small and underserved producers.”

You got that? Yeah it's a little hazy. But the core of the idea is to pay farmers, ranchers, foresters and other land management type folk for land stewardship that results in, among other things, cleaner water and air. A noble idea right?

But on Sept. 14, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced who is getting the first 70 project grants. And things feel a little less noble. Among the lead partners:

Iowa Soybean Association $90 million, Archer-Daniels-Midland Company $90 million, USA Rice Federation, Inc. $80 million, National Sorghum Producers Association $65 million, Tyson Foods, Inc. $60 million, Blue Diamond Growers $45 million, and Dairy Farmers of America $45 million.

The program might end up a roaring success. It's fair to be skeptical, though, about handing the likes of ADM and Tyson Foods baskets of cash. ADM has received hundreds of millions of tax dollars to create a carbon-capture program in Decatur, Illinois, that is vastly underperforming when measured by stated goals. And Tyson Foods is one of the most fined Big Ag companies on the planet. 

Jason Davison, senior food and agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth — a nonprofit advocacy group — posted on its website that “USDA handing $60 million taxpayer dollars to Tyson Foods to create ‘climate-smart’ beef would be like EPA giving a $60 million grant to Exxon to create ‘green’ gasoline. It’s a massive corporate giveaway, and it’s unacceptable.”

That's one fear — a significant portion of the project grants will be used for green-washing.

That isn't all. The federal government has a miserable track record when it comes to accountability. All too often the Government Accountability Office is reporting how the feds failed to properly disperse funding. Recently, for example, GAO reported the Farm Service Agency improperly handed out Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments to producers with incomplete documentation. Yeah.

USDA is hoping that project implementation will lead to sequestering more than 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That's like taking 10 million passenger vehicles off the road for a year. I'm rooting that most of this works. And farmers certainly have a role to play in combating climate change. 

Keep your fingers crossed. Maybe carry around your climate friendly four-leaf clover. And hope Big Ag and the feds don't find a way to mess this up.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.