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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Provisions Supporting Ecosystem Services Markets in U.S. Farm Bill Legislation

Environmental goods and services are the benefits society obtains from the environment and ecosystems, both natural and managed, such as water filtration, flood control, provision of habitat, carbon storage, and many others. Farmers’ participation in providing these types of goods and services began in earnest in the 1990s with the development of watershed approaches incorporating nutrient credit trading and wetlands mitigation banking, and continued with the more recent development of voluntary carbon credit markets. These efforts have triggered further interest in the possibility of developing market and trading opportunities for farmers and landowners as a source of environmental offsets. These services would be in addition to the food and fiber services traditionally supplied by the agriculture and forestry sectors. Congress is expressing growing interest in developing such market-based approaches to complement existing federally supported programs that promote conservation in the farm and forestry sectors, as well as to complement existing and/or emerging environmental regulations or natural resource requirements that may affect the agriculture and forestry sectors.

The enacted 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-246, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) contains a new conservation provision that seeks to facilitate the participation of farmers and landowners in environmental services markets by directing USDA to develop technical guidelines for measuring farm- and forestry-based environmental services. This provision focuses first on carbon storage and indirectly references various agriculture and forestry provisions in some legislative initiatives that are being considered as part of the broader climate change debate, which have highlighted the perceived need for uniform standards and ways of measuring emissions reduction and increases in carbon storage in the agriculture and forestry sectors. These types of provisions could expand the scope of existing land-based conservation programs and facilitate the development of private-sector markets for a range of environmental goods and services from farmers and landowners.

Among the possible questions that may emerge as these agriculture and forestry provisions are either implemented as part of U.S. farm conservation policy, or considered as part of a broader climate change initiative, are the following: Can agricultural interests effectively provide environmental services along with traditional food and forestry services? How would uniform standards address differences within production areas, types of resources, and ecosystems? What is the role of USDA as the lead federal agency in establishing technical guidelines for the agriculture and forestry sectors? How would collaboration work between other participating federal agencies? How would the agreed-upon decisions and standards work within existing regulatory authorities, and within possible forthcoming regulatory authorities, such as proposed climate change options currently being debated in Congress? What role should federal agencies play in establishing environmental services markets?

Date of Report: December 15, 2009
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RL34042
Price: $29.95
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