Agriculture, A Huge Contributor To Climate Change, Is Starting To Clean Up Its Act

Last April, the United States Department of Agriculture announced plans to tackle agriculture’s contribution to climate change. Dubbed the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry, the plan included a set of voluntary but incentive-based programs in ten key areas, from soil health to nutrient management. All told, the USDA estimated that the programs would help agriculture cut its emissions by 120 million metric tons by 2025 — the equivalent of taking more than 25 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Now, a year later, the department is reflecting on the progress it has made through a newly released report that serves as the first annual check-in on the initiatives.

“It’s an important topic,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told ThinkProgress. “Agriculture wants to play its role in trying to reduce emissions, and to try to allow the United States to adapt and mitigate to a changing climate in the most efficient way possible.”

All of these programs, all of this effort … all of this basically improves the bottom line for producers

In 2014, the agricultural sector accounted for about 9 percent of the United States’ emissions. Compared to sectors like electricity or transportation — which accounted for 30 and 26 percent respectively — agriculture’s contribution to global warming might seem relatively small. But unlike other sectors, which are facing mandated regulations like the Clean Power Plan or fuel efficiency standards, agriculture has been subject to relatively few regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. That means that if farmers want to avoid regulations, Vilsack and the USDA must make the case that voluntary programs are enough to help the agricultural sector cut its emissions and prepare for climate change.

“Other industries within the economy are going to step up their game,” Vilsack said. “We don’t want a circumstance where agriculture will look like it’s lagging behind.”

Vilsack thinks that so far, however, the USDA’s voluntary programs are working.

In the last year, the USDA has worked to expand its existing programs to help farmers become familiar with the voluntary building blocks. In the area of soil health, for instance — a main pillar of the plan’s emissions reduction strategy — the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) established a Soil Health Division dedicated to helping farmers adopt long-term soil management techniques to help encourage the formation of healthy, carbon-storing soil. As part of a Soil Health Initiative, the USDA is also working with farmers to establish guidelines for the use of cover crops, which research suggests can help boost soil health. In the last few years alone, according to Vilsack, the amount of cover crop activity in the United States has increased by 350 percent. The USDA also has a goal of doubling the amount of no-till acreage across America (land where farmers don’t disturb the soil through tillage) from 50 million to 100 million acres.

Additionally, the USDA announced Thursday a new $72.3 million investment in boosting carbon storage through soil health.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Through the NRCS, the USDA also spent the last year working on improving nitrogen stewardship among farmers, especially across the Midwest, which has been plagued with issues related to fertilizer overuse and runoff. The NRCS funded two projects — one $5.3 million project with the Illinois Corn Growers Association and another $9.5 million project with the Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership — meant to advance science-based conservation techniques to help farmers apply the right amount of fertilizer, in the right places, at the right time.

“We’ve actually come up with a tool that producers can use to make those calculations so they can be more precise with the application of fertilizer, which will allow us to significantly reduce the emissions associated with fertilizer,” Vilsack said.

The USDA’s building blocks also hope to deal with emissions related to livestock, which is one of the main sources of agricultural emissions due to the methane produced by ruminants like cattle. Last year, the USDA — through the NRCS and the Rural Energy for America Program — funded the installation of 25 anaerobic digesters and biogas systems, which take methane produced from livestock and turn it into energy. The USDA also launched a project aimed at increasing the amount of rotational grazing to up to 20 million acres, which could help livestock producers sequester carbon that could eventually be sold as offsets in a carbon market.

Last year, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) also had one of its most competitive years in history, receiving a record-high number of applications from farmers hoping to set aside environmentally-sensitive lands. This year, the USDA will pay farmers to set aside 400,000 acres of land under the CRP’s general enrollment. Because the application process was so competitive this year, Vilsack said that the USDA was able to increase its standards for the land chosen to be set aside, ensuring that this year’s land will be what Vilsack describes as “the most highly-sensitive, environmentally-at risk lands.”

Implementing the building blocks, and ensuring that they actually help reduce emissions, isn’t without its barriers, however. Voluntary, incentive-based programs only make sense for farmers if they help add to their bottom-line, and convincing farmers of their ultimate value is another task the USDA hopes to tackle in the coming years.

“Part of the challenge is to make sure that we can make the case, with cover crops, that in the long run it will be economically beneficial to the producer,” Vilsack said. “If you’re asking the producer to spend a little money to spread some seed so that the cover crop can be planted, and there is no market for the cover crop, it makes it difficult for that farmer to make the financial case to do it, especially with commodity prices not being all that strong.”

Agriculture wants to play its role in trying to reduce emissions

To that end, the USDA has been working to promote the concept of ecosystem markets, where incentives are given to farmers who do things like preserve water quality or store carbon on their lands.

“This is something we’ve been aggressively pursuing,” Vilsack said. “It’s one of the four strategies we have for rebuilding the rural economy, and it’s basically utilizing conservation for something more than the benefits to soil and water, but figuring out ways in which it can create new industries and new opportunities in rural areas.”

Ultimately, these programs will take years — at least until 2025 — to fully take shape. And while the USDA has been particularly outspoken about climate change under President Obama, Vilsack thinks that the work will continue regardless of who takes the White House next November.

“All of these programs, all of this effort — whether it’s renewable energy projects which are very popular with producers, or it’s increasing conservation investments in highly-erodible lands, or it’s helping farmers be more precise with the application of their fertilizer — all of this basically improves the bottom line for producers,” he said. “I think the demand for this is not necessarily dependent on who the Secretary of Agriculture is, or what Congress looks like, or who’s in the White House. It really is going to be driven by the desire of producers to be good stewards and to contribute to a goal that the country has set to reduce emissions and to allow us to be more resilient over time.”