At the beginning of 1933, a panoramic sea of once-golden fields of wheat across the American Great Plains was left to rot and wither. The economic collapse of the Great Depression and prolonged fallout of the Dust Bowl had crippled the price of the commodity beyond harvest profitability. In 1933, a bushel of wheat cost 38 cents – the lowest price in 300 years.
Overproduction, mechanization, and dwindling agricultural demand in the aftermath of World War I had created the perfect storm of catastrophes. The economic condition of the United States spiraled toward ruination, and complete financial recovery hinged on the revival of the agricultural sphere.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed a plan to tackle the fiasco. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA) — a cornerstone of the New Deal — would stifle overproduction by subsidizing farmers to limit crop acreage. At the heart of the AAA was the creation of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), a financial institution with a budget used to stabilize farm income, facilitate the distribution of farm products, and ensure market equilibrium.
FDR established the CCC — not to be confused with its more famous fellow New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps — to aid struggling farmers reeling from the colossal losses of the Great Depression. Yet the relic of the New Deal program continues to echo in the White House today. This time, the crisis ameliorated by the agency is not economic despair wrought by an agricultural surplus. A parallel threat looms large: the calamity of a changing climate.
The agricultural industry currently accounts for over 10.5 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States. Unsustainable farming practices also exacerbate the impacts of climate change by degrading soil and water quality, intensifying flood and erosion risks, and amplifying biodiversity loss. Green farming strategies mitigate environmental destruction by reducing carbon emissions and offsetting the existing carbon footprint through greenhouse gas sequestration.
A plethora of sustainable farming tactics could make a difference. Some include the use of compost over chemical fertilizers, conversion of cropland to forest land (afforestation), construction of worm farms, planting of cover crops to avoid exposing bare soil between crop rotations, and implementation of alternative soil aeration techniques to avoid tillage. These tactics boost the amount of organic and inorganic carbon stored in the ground, creating “carbon sinks” that help to regulate the global carbon cycle. The carbon regulation mitigates emissions and eliminates much of the environmental degradation associated with modern agricultural practices.
How would the Depression-era CCC play into the modern movement toward a greener agricultural future? The plan proposed by the Biden administration is to engineer the agency into a tool to subsidize American farmers for investments in regenerative agriculture practices. Sustainable agricultural strategies could transform farmlands into valuable carbon repositories with the capacity to seal over 7,000 megatons of carbon in the soil each year.
The paradigm is clear. Could federal efforts to decarbonize the agricultural sector shift the tone pertaining to sustainable agriculture by appealing to environmental advocates on both sides of the political spectrum? And does the Biden administration have the authority to repurpose the CCC, an agency never before used to combat the modern climate crisis, to accomplish this?
The framework of the CCC is mutable and loosely defined. President Trump subverted narrow definitions of the role of the agency during his term, employing the organization to subsidize farmers affected by trade wars with foreign nations and the coronavirus pandemic. With a $30 billion budget that can be tapped into before requiring congressional approval, the possibilities are expansive. In 2020, the CCC accounted for over 40 percent of total U.S. farm income. If applied to the climate realm, the agency has the potential to entirely reshape the fraught relationship between American farms and the fragile climate.
“[The CCC] 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,” said Tom Vilsack, Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture, at his Senate confirmation in February. Vilsack, a proponent of green agricultural practices who also served as President Barack Obama’s Agriculture secretary, thinks the proposal could gain bipartisan support while bypassing the need for congressional negotiation altogether. He argues that carbon has become a commodity that falls under the umbrella of responsibilities covered by the CCC.
“It’s a win-win – for the environment and for our pocketbook,” said Loren Poncia, a fourth-generation cattle farmer from Northern California in an interview with CNBC. “If we as a world are going to reverse the damage that’s been done, it’ll be through agriculture and food sustainability.”
Although the reimagining of the CCC as a pathway to sustainable agriculture reform is still in its infancy, similar proposals have already garnered respectable bipartisan support. On June 24, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill entitled the Growing Climate Solutions Act, S. 1251 (117), which outlines the creation of a certification program to streamline the process by which farmers, ranchers, and foresters generate revenue through the sale of carbon credits. This legislation would enable landowners to partner with major corporations interested in purchasing carbon credits to meet their environmental targets. Although on a much smaller scale than the CCC (the CCC controls $30 billion versus the $4 million allocated in this bill), the legislation offers a glimpse into bipartisan avenues within the agricultural sector.
Some environmental advocates contend that the creation of a corporate carbon economy would do more harm than good. If corporations are allowed to “buy their way” to net-zero emissions targets rather than minimize the root of their carbon footprint, corporate accountability is entirely eschewed. Yet if pursued in tandem with legitimate attempts to mitigate carbon emissions in the first place (a mentality very much lacking in the corporate landscape at present), efforts to achieve carbon-neutrality through carbon credits have the potential to be a constructive facet of the solution.
Not all members of Congress are in favor of intertwining federal agencies with the agricultural carbon market. Some question the legitimacy of the government’s proposal to consider carbon an agricultural commodity. “I’m very much opposed to a carbon bank,” said Senator John Boozman (R-AK), the Republican leader on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I don’t think that the administration has the authority to do that. When you read the statute, it talks about agricultural commodities. To say that carbon is an agricultural commodity is really a stretch.”
Echoing Boozman’s sentiment, Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) raised objections to the legality of allocating CCC funds for green agriculture initiatives. He believes a proposal like that should be legislated rather than finagled through existing federal agencies.
Biden’s plan to channel the power of the CCC in support of green agriculture practices is bold. And with congressional consensus on bipartisan climate issues complicated by the diaphanous balance of power in the Senate, an out-of-the-box solution circumventing Congress may be necessary.
Biden’s ability to orchestrate this scheme could be a telling signal of his fundamental approach to the presidency in an era characterized by a labyrinth of political resistance. Already, Biden has maximized his use of executive authority to sign executive orders, draft substantive proclamations, and authorize presidential memoranda. In his first two weeks in office alone, Biden signed as many executive orders as FDR (the executive order record holder) signed in his first month.
While Biden’s reforms may not be as progressive and sweeping as the sea-change of the New Deal, these gestures illustrate his willingness to diverge from traditional legislative pathways to accomplish some reform. And while the long-term effectiveness of these executive actions is questionable without the legislative backing of Congress, transforming the agricultural industry into a carbon market shows clear bipartisan potential.
Like FDR’s New Deal, repurposing the CCC into a climate solution could jumpstart economic reform while rectifying a generational crisis. The climate dilemma is clear, and the little-known CCC offers strong hope for a modern day solution.