In reconciliation, climate-smart agriculture and forestry is the way forward
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Our country set an alarming record in 2020: Americans endured 22 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. Even more terrifying: America is set to surpass that record this year!  

But even if we stopped emitting all new carbon pollution starting today, we’re still unfortunately in very deep trouble. Leading scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and elsewhere now tell us that, in addition to sharply reducing our emissions from power plants and vehicles, we have to take steps to remove carbon that’s already in the air. 

One key solution, too often overlooked, is already here — in the land under our feet and the trees that surround us. Farmers, ranchers and foresters are uniquely positioned to address the crisis head-on through climate-smart stewardship. 

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We must adopt a climate policy that supports nature-based solutions such as climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices. These practices are easily one of the most cost-effective and sustainable ways to simultaneously combat the climate crisis, restore our soil and water, preserve biodiversity and build a better, more resilient future for generations to come. 

Climate-smart farming including regenerative agriculture and other conservation practices pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it under the soil’s surface — and have added benefits for the quality of the land.

One simple but effective strategy is planting cover crops over the winter when the soil is bare. This additional crop helps to build organic matter in the soil that keeps more carbon in the ground. This regenerative process builds healthy agricultural soils, which improves yields and makes crops more resilient to drought. It also has the added benefit of preventing nutrient run-off into streams that ultimately contributes to algal blooms like the ones that occur in Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico every year.

Other regenerative practices — like diversifying crop rotations so that a farmer is growing more than just one or two crops, or integrating livestock grazing with row crop production to more closely mimic natural ecosystems — can further reduce agriculture’s climate footprint. Similarly, managed grazing, where pastures are given time to rest so that perennial grasses can regenerate and grow deeper root systems, can increase the carbon content of soils and improve the health and resilience of millions of acres of pasture and rangeland in our country.  

Regenerative and climate-smart agricultural practices benefit both farmers and the planet. With scientists telling us there is enormous potential in nature-based solutions, the federal government can help farmers adopt these practices at a scale that can make a real difference in reducing carbon pollution.  

The current federal programs that support these practices are immensely popular but are routinely under-funded — with three times as many applicants as they can accept so we know every additional dollar put in to these programs can be immediately put to work addressing the climate crisis. 

Research into climate-smart agricultural technologies and practices can also help farmers and ranchers reduce potent climate “super pollutants” like nitrous oxide and methane. With better technology, more farmers are able to reduce their fertilizer usage—thereby preventing excess nitrous oxide emissions, which are hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2), from leaking into the atmosphere. And thanks to innovative research, ranchers are adopting a new practice of feeding seaweed to cattle, which can reduce methane emissions by up to 80 percent. Many of these breakthroughs are the result of public-private research partnerships—which we must do more of to accelerate their adoption and impact on the climate crisis.  

Climate-smart forestry practices also have great potential to seriously address the climate crisis. Despite all our innovation, one of the best carbon-capture technologies out there has already been invented — it's called a tree!

We need to protect our old growth forests, which are huge carbon reservoirs, and we need to pursue science-based reforestation across the country to pull carbon out of the air on a massive scale. With the right policies and investments, we have the potential to increase carbon capture in U.S. forests by more than 40 percent

Additionally, one in four rural Americans owns forestland. These forest owners can play a crucial role in tackling the climate crisis if we work with them to manage their trees in a way that traps more carbon, all while retaining traditional forest product market opportunities.   

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Tackling our climate crisis through urban forestry is also one way we can start to address longstanding environmental justice issues. Planting a tree does more than just pull pollution out of the air. Studies show that in American cities, residents of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color oftentimes endure far higher temperatures than people who live in whiter, wealthier areas that typically have more trees.

This “heat island effect” has led to worse health outcomes for overlooked communities, from higher childhood asthma rates to increased death tolls from extreme heat waves. Our Build Back Better Budget calls for an unprecedented tree-planting effort in long-neglected neighborhoods.

These benefits are only the beginning of what we can accomplish with climate-smart agriculture and forestry. Nature-based solutions, like the ones in our Build Back Better Budget, are a climate powerhouse. They help to pull more than 1.3 billion metric tons of CO2 out of the air — the equivalent of taking 285 million cars off the road. And at the same time, they improve the health of our soil, our water, our forests and our cities. What’s more, they are among the most cost-effective ways of tackling the climate crisis.

The federal government has spent an average of $126 billion a year over the past 5 years alone to respond to the damage caused by a changing climate. And that number is going up and up threatening to quickly exceed the funding in our budget that will actually reduce pollution and seriously tackle this crisis. 

The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time. Given the right support, our land and trees can be a meaningful part of our response, alongside aggressive emissions reductions in other sectors like energy and transportation.  

We need to act now with the sense of urgency that this moment requires.

Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Senate Democrats look to fix ugly polling numbers Ford announces plans to increase electric vehicle production to 600K by 2023 MORE is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.