The USDA Is Taking On Agriculture’s Huge Contribution To Climate Change

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. CREDIT: AP
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. CREDIT: AP

The United States Department of Agriculture plans to announce a set of voluntary initiatives aimed at helping farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners respond to climate change by increasing carbon storage, reducing carbon emissions, and supporting resilience in the face of extreme weather.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is expected to make the announcement Thursday during a visit to Michigan State University, where President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill. The initiative is based off of ten “building blocks” that cut across the agricultural sector and seek voluntary action from farmers, ranchers, and forest land owners to reduce their carbon emissions. Through these voluntary programs, the USDA hopes to reduce net emissions related to agriculture by 120 million metric tons per year by 2025 — the equivalent of taking more than 25 million passenger vehicles off the road.

In 2013, the agricultural sector accounted for 7.7 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, with methane and nitrous oxide being the primary greenhouse gases released. Methane is largely released through livestock production, via fermentation in the stomach of ruminants like cattle, sheep, or goats, or through manure management. Nitrous oxide is released when excess fertilizer isn’t absorb by soil.

To achieve these reductions, the USDA plans to encourage farmers, ranchers, and foresters to adopt a slew of sustainable practices, from improved nutrient management to enhanced forest conservation. To reduce fertilizer pollution, the USDA hopes to increase the U.S.’s amount of no-till cropland from the current 67 million acres to over 100 million acres by 2025. To tackle methane from livestock production, the USDA intends to support the installation of 500 new digester plants — meant to turn animal waste into renewable energy — over the next 10 years. The department will also maximize efforts to improve energy efficiency and increase the use of renewable energy, especially the use of biomass as a fuel source.


The initiatives also focus on increasing and managing existing forests on both private and federal lands. Under the Forest Stewardship Program, the department hopes to protect an additional of 2.1 million acres of nonindustrial forest on average each year. The USDA also wants to increase the number of urban forests in the country — to reduce storm water runoff and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration and urban property values — by planting an additional average of 9,000 trees each year.

The initiatives are voluntary, though the USDA plans to incentivize participation by offering grants, low-interest loans, and technical assistance, according to the Associated Press.

In conjunction with the USDA’s initiatives, several environmental and agricultural groups have announced new commitments to reducing emissions through new conservation and mitigation efforts. Among the organizations pledging new initiatives are Field to Market, a sustainability-focused agricultural group that hopes to curb emissions throughout commodity crop supply chains; the Fertilizer Institute, which has pledged more than $6 million to nutrient research; and the American Forest Foundation, which announced it would work with the U.S. Forest Service to work with landowners in the West on wildfire mitigation strategies.

“Partnerships are an important part of addressing climate change,” Rita Hite, AFF’s executive vice president of the American Tree Farm System, Woodlands, and Policy, told ThinkProgress. “USDA is committed to partnering and this [initiative] is the perfect example.”

Last year, as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the USDA created seven regional “climate hubs” to help farmers better understand how climate change will affect them.


In the past, however, the USDA has been cautious in linking extreme weather to climate change, with the department referring to climate change as “weather variation” when it promotes programs to farmers. Defending this move at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual conference in January, Vilsack said that talking about climate change can move the conversation into politically charged territory, something that can turn off farmers and dampen progress.

In 2012, Vilsack drew criticism from environmentalists for refusing to link drought to climate change, telling reporters that “I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to opine as to the cause of this.”

Following the release of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, however, Vilsack warned that climate change would have a profound impact on the country’s agricultural sector.

“The National Climate Assessment confirms that climate change is affecting every region of the country and critical sectors of the economy like agriculture,” Vilsack said in a statement. “This assessment provides an unprecedented look at how the changing climate and extreme weather impact rural America.”


The AFF is working with the Forest Service on wildfire mitigation, not wildlife education.