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USDA marks progress on climate-smart ag actions

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90-day progress report details ag industry’s ability to offer solutions in climate crisis.

With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity and maintain critical environmental benefits, according to an opening message by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in the USDA’s 90-day progress report on climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

“Central to USDA’s approach is the concept that to be effective, whatever we do must work for farmers, ranchers and landowners. We must pursue strategies that create new markets for rural Americans and build wealth that stays in rural communities,” Vilsack says.

Over the past months, USDA has heard the views of Tribes and stakeholders across agriculture and forestry on how USDA should develop its climate smart agriculture and forestry strategy. Under the Biden administration, USDA is engaged in a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis and conserve and protect our nation’s lands, biodiversity, and natural resources, including soil, air and water.

Climate-smart practices include activities that store carbon and improve resilience and soil health, such as reduced and no-till, cover crops, and prescribed grazing; reduce GHG emissions, including methane and nitrous oxide, using practices such as ruminant feed management, manure management, and fertilizer management; improve on-farm energy efficiency, such as improved irrigation efficiency, reduced fuel use, and energy conservation; and improve forest management to increase forest resilience and health.

The report notes while a wide range of ideas and comments were shared with USDA, several common themes emerged. Respondents valued the department’s efforts to assert a leadership role in combating climate change within the sector and welcomed the opportunity to partner with USDA on this work.

Related: 6 things farmers should know about Biden’s climate plan

USDA was urged to seek approaches that integrate climate, environmental, and equity and justice goals. Feedback indicated that the CSAF strategy should recognize and account for co-benefits that CSAF practices provide beyond reducing GHGs, including protecting habitat, improving air, water, and soil quality, and building resilience.

USDA also heard the need to remain attentive to potential adverse impacts of a CSAF strategy, particularly on already burdened communities, and to engage directly with community members. Another main theme was that a “one-size-fits-all” policy or program will not work for all producers and land managers and that a CSAF strategy needs to be place-based, flexible and locally-led.

USDA says it is still synthesizing the wide array of comments received from the comment period that closed at the end of April as well as its 10 stakeholder listening sessions. In its future steps, USDA will internally review its programs to identify opportunities for integrating elements of a CSAF strategy into existing programs as well as making the necessary investments in training, tools, personnel, programs and research to enable successful implementation of a CSAF strategy.

USDA offered seven recommended elements for its climate smart agriculture and forestry strategy. This includes:

Preparing USDA to quantify, track and report the benefits of CSAF activities. USDA will develop or enhance methods and tools for quantifying the GHG benefits and other co-benefits of promising CSAF practices and ensure that they are consistent and scientifically sound. It also says USDA will track implementation and quantify benefits of CSAF practices at the national scale.

Develop a CSAF strategy that works for all farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and communities. This includes strengthening consultation and engagement with Tribes and socially disadvantaged communities and producers and identify opportunities for broader inclusivity within USDA programs. This also recognizes the need to identify and remove barriers to entry in existing programs and remove barriers to participation and adoption.

Another key component is to include early adopters, a common thread of discussion. “While USDA seeks to expand voluntary adoption of CSAF practices, it recognizes that innovative farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners may have already adopted many of these practices on their own,” the progress report notes. “Recognizing how critical early adopters are to championing new conservation practices, USDA should provide options within its programs to ensure that early adopters are included and not disadvantaged by their initial commitment to using environmentally sound practices.”

Leverage existing USDA programs to support CSAF strategies. USDA has a wide range of programs that provide cost share and financial assistance for on-farm and forest conservation. USDA’s CSAF strategy should strengthen the ability of these programs to deliver climate benefits alongside other environmental benefits. Many of these programs already include funding and technical assistance for practices that have carbon benefits, including cover crops, precision agriculture, manure management, and forest restoration.

Programs to identify and prioritize climate risks and carbon benefits include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.

Strengthen education, training and technical assistance for CSAF practices. Outreach, education, training, and technical assistance are important elements of effective voluntary programs, USDA notes. Technical assistance will also be important in ensuring that producers have access to the expertise they need to successfully implement and integrate CSAF practices into their operations in ways that are ecologically appropriate and tailored to their needs, including expanding and strengthening USDA’s network of expertise through recruitment and training of additional staff at the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Forest Service staff.

This also calls for additional investment in and strengthening the role of USDA’s Climate Hubs, which help identify regional climate vulnerabilities and work with farmers and land managers to prioritize, plan and implement projects or practices to adapt to climate stressors.

Support new and better markets for agriculture and forestry products generated through CSAF practices. A wide range of market-based approaches exist for incentivizing climate-friendly agriculture commodities. These include voluntary markets for carbon where agriculture and forestry can provide carbon offsets or credits, sustainable supply chain initiatives and “insetting” approaches where companies reduce emissions within their own supply chains and production facilities.
Opportunities for supporting markets for CSAF practices include supporting:

  • producer participation in voluntary carbon markets;
  • the role of agriculture in decarbonizing the transportation sector;
  • renewable energy development in rural America;
  • deployment and development of methane digesters, biogas, and biobased products; and
  • new markets for wood products.

Develop a forest and wildfire resilience strategy. Forests and harvested wood products take up the equivalent of more than 14% of economy-wide CO2 emissions in the United States annually, and there is potential to increase carbon sequestration capacity by approximately 20% per year by facilitating re-plantings in understock productive forestland, the report notes.

Additional actions include fuels reduction, climate-informed reforestation and forest management, research to support mitigation and adaptation, and an equitable distribution of services related to wildfire mitigation and response.

Improve research. The enormous challenges call for innovative research supported by bold, transdisciplinary collaborations. USDA should build on its existing research by identifying existing gaps and generating new interdisciplinary research that incorporates the stakeholder input. Research should also evaluate potential climate benefits of new technologies and target research on technologies with the potential for mitigating U.S. agricultural GHG emissions.

Support from stakeholders

Agricultural groups have been vocal in discussing the role farmers can play in mitigating the climate, and also welcomed USDA attention to ag's role as part of the solution. 

"We look forward to working with USDA as they expand conservation practices and improve access to data and research so that the agriculture sector has the information it needs to improve profitability and environmental outcomes. We believe that these are the building blocks of good policy and a strong agriculture sector, and that there is broad consensus for this type of progress at USDA from producers, NGOs, and industry," said Deborah Atwood, AGree executive director and Meridian Institute senior fellow.

The National Audubon Society welcomed the initial commitments offered in the report. "We recognize that these laudable goals must be backed up by meaningful actions,” says Melinda Cep, vice president of natural solutions and working lands at the National Audubon Society. “We look forward to working with USDA to ensure that these important opportunities are realized.”

A 2019 Audubon report found that unless the rate of climate change and global temperature rise is slowed to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, two-thirds of North American bird species will be vulnerable to extinction.

“Many of the places that birds need to survive include working lands like farms, ranches, and forests, so their fate is bound to them,” Cep adds. “These same places can be valuable climate solutions, so it’s a necessary step forward for USDA to recognize the role that agriculture and forestry play in creating a cleaner future.” 

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