USDA can steer farm aid money to fight climate change, Biden ag secretary nominee says

FILE PHOTO: Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's nominee to be Secretary of Agriculture, speaks after Biden announced his nomination among another round of nominees and appointees for his administration during a news conference at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., December 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

(Reuters) - The White House wants to tap a pool of funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to support on-the-farm efforts to fight climate change, Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s nominee to run the USDA, said on Tuesday.

The Depression-era program of up to $30 billion in annual funding was tapped by the Trump administration to distribute billions of dollars in aid to cover farmers’ lost sales due to trade wars, primarily with China. Now it could help advance a Biden policy priority: combating climate change.

The CCC funds could be used to create a market to trade carbon or help farmers adopt sustainable agriculture practices, Vilsack said during his Senate confirmation hearing. Those green programs could then be incorporated and expanded in future farm bills, he said.

“It is a great tool for us to create the kind of structure that will inform future farm bills about what will encourage carbon sequestration, what will encourage precision agriculture, what will encourage soil health and regenerative agricultural practices,” Vilsack said.

Biden has already signed a raft of climate-related executive actions, including a pause on new oil and gas leases on federal land, rejoining the Paris climate accord and setting a target for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

A handful of private projects launched recently by the likes of Cargill and Bayer have tried to compensate growers for sustainable agriculture practices. Many farmers, however, have been reluctant to make the shift due to high upfront costs for uncertain or minimal returns.

The CCC was established nearly a century ago and has the authority to borrow up to $30 billion from the U.S. Treasury to help stabilize and support farm income and agricultural product prices.

Farm subsidies soared under Trump, with farm aid packages and other government support schemes accounting for almost 40% of farm income last year, a two-decade high.

Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky