In 2017, near the end of my 30-year tenure representing a rural, agricultural district in Congress and serving as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, I earned the distinction of being the most bipartisan member of Congress.
The success I had was a result of having real conversations with my colleagues in both parties — figuring out where the common ground was among a geographically and politically diverse group of individuals.
Unfortunately, the political scene in Washington continues to be polarized. The climate change issue is no different. The loudest voices are those on both ends of the political spectrum — Republicans who imagine the Green New Deal behind every environmental proposal, and Democrats who view climate change policy like a hammer where everything is a nail.
But behind the scenes, conversations and ideas about working with farmers to help sequester greenhouse gases are the places where I believe we can and will find common ground.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture accounts for just 10% of U.S. CO2 emissions, with livestock accounting for just 4%. On a net basis, agriculture and forestry actually eliminate more emissions than they produce, removing some 729 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2017 alone.
Through no-till farming, the planting of cover crops, using methane digesters and other practices, U.S. producers are already sequestering carbon — producing food for 7.9 billion people in smarter and more efficient ways.
Biofuels also have significantly contributed to CO2 emission reductions, with the EPA noting that these renewable fuels had the effect of removing 17 million cars from the road in 2018.
Over the last 70 years, U.S. agriculture has tripled production while land, energy, fertilizer and other inputs have remained fairly steady.
Despite this progress, producers have not always been the best at making their efforts known, and they are often caught flat-footed as more pointed forces align against them.
My point is not that agriculture has done all that it can do — but rather to point out what agriculture has done and will continue do when given the right tools.
I see on the horizon a robust set of policies emerging from bipartisan leaders on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees that would help incentivize farmers and ranchers to reduce greenhouse gases voluntarily and effectively.
For example, if American Airlines wants to offset its emissions by paying farmers and ranchers to sequester carbon, producers will need confidence in that kind of a private market. Bipartisan legislation by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Mike Braun, R-Ind., and John Boozman, R-Ark., that achieves that goal recently passed the Senate by an overwhelming margin of 92-8.
Another bipartisan initiative includes the increased use of biofuels to reduce America's carbon footprint. Lawmakers have pushed electric vehicles without recognizing that low-carbon biofuels reduce greenhouse gases. This is a missed opportunity. Biofuels should be viewed as a ready tool.
Other proposals significantly increase funding for some of the most successful environmental programs — namely the farm bill's suite of conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. This kind of investment will achieve great environmental returns if built on bipartisan consensus with a permanent funding stream to ensure that producers have the tools they need over the long haul.
After years of creating and refining these programs, they continue to achieve successes where regulatory and other approaches have failed. Producers understand these conservation programs and have voluntarily opted to use them effectively to achieve national goals of clean air and water, healthy soils, and the preservation of wetlands and wildlife habitat.
Finally, my successor, House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, D-Ga., is eyeing a standing disaster program to help close what can be big deductibles for producers under crop insurance. As climate change wreaks more havoc on producers, with the greater frequency of severe natural disasters, Scott's idea merits exploration. But, again, lawmakers should work to achieve bipartisan consensus on the issue and avoid undermining crop insurance, which has worked incredibly well to help farmers weather natural disasters and secure credit from their bankers.
In the last six months, I've talked to many farmers and agricultural groups who have expressed great optimism in watching the Biden administration embracing a voluntary, incentives-based approach to agriculture's role in greenhouse gas reductions, rather than scaring producers away with a hammer.
If we can weed out the rhetoric of the extremes in the climate conversation and focus on the facts about agriculture's past and current contributions and continued willingness to reducing greenhouse gases, I believe we will make real progress toward future reductions.
Collin C. Peterson is a consultant to the agricultural lobbying firm Combest Sell and Associates. He represented Minnesota's Seventh Congressional District as a Democrat for 15 terms.