A changing conversation in Washington

An inside look at the latest developments in sustainability with Ashley McKeon, Director of federal government relations for Cargill 

Ashley McKeon

Ashley McKeon

 

As farmers begin to adopt new regenerative agriculture practices to protect the soil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and partner with companies like Cargill to navigate emerging carbon markets, federal legislators are also determining how they will lead and create legislation surrounding “climate smart agriculture” in the United States.

Cargill’s government relations team is working closely with those in government to advocate on behalf of the agriculture industry when it comes to future legislation and/or regulation.

We sat down with Ashley McKeon, Director of federal government relations for Cargill to get an inside look at the latest developments in the sustainability portfolio on Capitol Hill.

RegenConnect: What are you observing in Washington in terms of the sustainability conversation, particularly as it relates to carbon?

Ashley McKeon: With the Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress taking power in January 2021, the urgency around climate change has escalated significantly. This kicked off in April with President Biden hosting a global climate summit and announcing aggressive new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for the US, a 50% reduction by 2030, which is double the level set by President Obama in the Paris Agreement. To get there, the administration is relying on a mix of new policy and funding from Congress, new regulations on key sectors like the oil and gas industry, and scaling up incentives for “climate smart agriculture.” Climate is a feature across all government programs, and we’re seeing that the role of the private sector in addressing climate change has been elevated to a new level.

Can you tell us more about how you see the conversation about climate changing?

AM: Ten years ago, when Washington last considered serious climate legislation, agriculture was largely an afterthought. Today, fortunately, there is acknowledgement that agriculture can be part of the solution. Advances in soil health and regenerative agriculture have shown the potential of soils to sequester carbon and to help reverse climate change. Innovations in livestock production, feed management, and grazing are also demonstrating that a sustainable livestock sector can – and does – exist. The Biden Administration supports voluntary practices, and has recently committed $1 billion to scale low carbon commodity markets. Congress is considering nearly $30 billion in new funding for conservation programs at USDA. That’s five times the amount of conservation funding in the current Farm Bill. While a lot of details remain to be seen, this is a level of investment in farms that hasn’t been seen in recent policy discussion

Farmers and companies down the food and ag supply chain are uniquely positioned to be at the table and advocate for policies that scale the work already under way on farms across the country. Cargill is engaged, partnering with farmers and other stakeholders along the value chain, to ensure that policies complement, and do not compete with innovations happening on farms and in companies throughout the sector.

How does Cargill bring the perspective of the agriculture industry to those in government?

AM: We have a number of ways we engage policy makers and advance issues important to farmers. We do this through lobbying directly with legislators, through engagement with key trade associations to ensure broader industry alignment on important issues, and by participating in coalitions to expand our views and learn from other groups, including commodity and farm organizations. We have also recently submitted comments to USDA outlining our views for how the department can best advance low carbon commodity markets that work for farmers and bring value back to the farm.

You mention that Cargill advocates for farmers, but what can farmers themselves do to ensure the government considers their interests?

AM: Get out there and get your voices heard. Whether this is calling your legislator directly, engaging through your farm organization policy committees, or talking to companies you work with – like Cargill – about issues you’re facing, the important thing is to be engaged. While Washington can seem very polarizing, there is a genuine bipartisan desire to support agriculture as a climate solution. But government can only advance policies when they are informed, so sharing your story and the needs you see for your farm are a critical first step.

Do we expect the federal government to get involved with how companies use farm data?

AM: This is an ongoing conversation. For now, the conversation is focused on voluntary conservation efforts. USDA and EPA are not pursuing regulation of the sector, and this extends to farm data. Data is critical only so far as it allows us to quantify and ensure credibility of the outcomes generated by regenerative ag practices. We need to ensure that carbon outcomes have credibility, so the role UDSA can play is primarily around setting standards, providing guidance, and connecting farmers to technical assistance. It will be important for farmers to articulate the issues in this space that are important for government to consider. Cargill would like to support and engage in this dialogue as well. We want to ensure outcomes are rewarded in a way that protects farmer privacy while ensuring credibility.

Is there anything farmers can do to prepare for potential regulatory changes or government incentives for good soil health practices?

AM: The government is not advanced in developing policies to support emerging carbon markets. Because of that, farmers need to be diligent about their data and record collection. It may be important down the line to show progress and metrics regarding when you began undertaking soil health practices should there be policies to reward early adopters. Over the next decade, we may also see other government programs more closely tied to conservation and/or regenerative agriculture, such as crop insurance or commodity support programs. This will likely be a major policy discussion in the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill. So being clear about the practices you are undertaking and the programs you are participating in may help demonstrate the value of agriculture as a climate solution in the future.

Ashley McKeon is Director of federal government relations for Cargill. She is based in Washington, DC and since 2019 has led the sustainability and environmental policy portfolio. Before coming to Cargill she spent 15 years working in the Senate and for the USDA.

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