How farmers can step up to fight climate change
In his first seven months in office, President Biden has made clear his intention to treat climate change as a serious threat to both the country and the world, and recently set a goal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least half by the year 2030.
U.S. farmers have the opportunity to participate proactively in reducing the threat of climate change through a number of efforts, such as sequestering carbon in soils by using conserving agricultural practices, reducing or capturing methane emissions from livestock, taking steps to more efficiently use nitrogen fertilizer to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, reducing emissions by improving their energy efficiency on-farm, and contributing to renewable energy production. In his address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, the president specifically mentioned paying farmers to plant cover crops to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions, as part of his proposed American Jobs Plan.
In many ways, farmers are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but they are also strategically positioned to be part of the solution. As we described in a recently released policy brief that was commissioned by Farm Journal Foundation, U.S. agriculture is estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to directly generate about 10 percent of greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S. economy. However, with the right incentives, we believe that farmers can turn the agricultural sector into a net carbon sink and take significant steps toward mitigating climate change.
In the paper, we identify a range of actions that farmers can take to facilitate the transition of agriculture to a net carbon sink position, encompassing changes in cropping practices, fertilizer application, livestock feeding practices, wider adoption of methane digesters to convert animal and food waste to renewable energy, improving energy efficiency in farming operations, installing wind turbines or solar panels to generate renewable energy on-farm, and using crop waste or dedicated biomass crops to create bio-based fuels.
The federal government already has an array of policies and programs in place that offer technical assistance, cost-share funding, and/or low-interest loans to help farmers plan and implement new climate-smart agricultural practices on their farms. The programs are primarily operated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and to a lesser extent through the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE). These include two major “working lands” programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which were allocated $2.55 billion in mandatory funding for fiscal 2021 in the 2018 farm bill to provide farmers with cost-share assistance to adopt new conserving practices as part of their farming operations.
We know from research that these programs are highly effective in encouraging new practices that sequester carbon or otherwise reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2018, a study released by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service estimated that cropland acres under CSP contracts retained more than 76 million pounds of soil organic carbon. In addition, we know that considerable carbon is also sequestered when land is retired for extended periods, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), under which farmers refrain from cultivating environmentally sensitive land under 10-to-15-year contracts. The land under CRP contract is generally planted in grass, legumes, forbs, or trees, and/or converted into wildlife habitat or wetlands, all of which help build carbon content in the soil. A recent study of soil carbon content in CRP fields in Iowa found on average a nearly 7 percentage point increase over a nine-year timeline.
Many innovative practices that help producers reduce emissions in livestock operations are also eligible for assistance under EQIP or CSP, such as rotational grazing and manure management. As of the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 686 farms that reported having methane digesters that converted animal waste into electricity for use on the farm, an increase of 28 percent from the previous Census in 2012. Farmers can get planning assistance for installing digester equipment under the joint USDA/USDOE AgStar program, and grants or guaranteed loans under the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) run by USDA. REAP also aids with the adoption of solar panels or wind turbines, which are also eligible for production tax credits at the federal level.
We believe that the federal government has an adequate array of programs, as described above, to help farmer adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, but the funding levels need to be bolstered significantly. On average, between 2000 and 2010, only about 40 percent of projects proposed under EQIP were actually funded.
In addition, Congress needs to enact the Growing Climate Solutions Act, to empower USDA to facilitate the emergence of private sector environmental services and carbon markets, and provide increased funding for research to develop more cost-effective ways to measure carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Stephanie Mercier is an economist and senior policy adviser with Farm Journal Foundation. Dr. John Reilly is co-director emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.