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USDA needs to put climate solutions before industry profits

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The United States is in a food fight with the rest of the world over climate change — and agricultural policy is at the heart of it. The recent release of the Department of Agriculture’s Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience only highlights the fact that the country isn’t preparing adequately to face the climate crisis.

Climate change is disrupting U.S. food production — from impacting growing seasons and disease risk to water availability and rising temperatures — and animal agriculture is fueling the flames with its own emissions. Yet, U.S. agricultural policy has long ignored “code red” warnings from climate experts. Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent moves at the USDA, including releasing the less-than-impressive climate adaptation plan, suggest the agency will continue to ignore effective solutions to address climate reality.

It doesn’t help that Vilsack seems to think the climate crisis will wait for a stamp of approval from producers. Recently, he tweeted that “Climate smart agriculture and forestry has to work for farmers, ranchers and forest owners or it won’t work for the climate.” That’s not how any of this works. We can’t ignore environmental disasters to protect the interests of agribusinesses. And while we need productive yields, we also need the food security that can only be found in a sustainable food system. Food policy must adapt to what works for climate mitigation.

While the USDA’s public acknowledgment of the link between agriculture and climate policy is a good first step, it still refuses to publicly address meat production and consumption, even though meat is one of the leading sectors driving climate change. Recently, Vilsack rebuffed the European Union’s Farm to Fork plans for sustainable agriculture, which included using fewer pesticides and encouraged people to eat less meat.

Instead, the agency aligned with Brazilan President Jiar Bolsanaro’s approach, where the Amazon is being destroyed by pesticides — many of which are banned in the E.U. — and agricultural deforestation, primarily for animal feed crops and pasture. At September’s G20 summit, Vilsack emphasized that climate solutions can be found in “voluntary actions.” The new Action Plan for Climate Adaptation and Resilience leans heavily on voluntary carbon markets and more funding for existing practices that are not climate solutions, like cover crops and prescribed grazing. 

More U.S. animal agriculture is not the solution to the climate crisis. Vilsack’s close ties to industry and his recent history as a dairy lobbyist seems to influencing the agency’s approach to climate policy. Take, for example, his previous refusal to heed sustainability recommendations in dietary guidelines from the USDA’s own scientific advisers, which could have connected federal nutrition recommendations with emissions-reduction goals in 2015 (then  serving in the same role under the Obama administration). Vilsack set a substantial precedent that has continued to this day and he has the power to re-direct in the next steps.

Despite the weak commitments in the agency’s latest climate plan, it’s not too late for the USDA to take real action to slash agricultural emissions and avoid the worst impacts of the climate catastrophe. To start, the secretary should commit to aligning the 2025 dietary guidelines with sustainability goals, which would influence food purchases at schools, government cafeterias, prisons, military facilities and other institutions, as well as recognize the critical role of food policy as climate policy.

Part of making climate-smart agricultural policy is rejecting false solutions and creative accounting that downplays agricultural methane. U.S. dairy produces more methane than many other countries’ entire emissions. And manure methane, or “biogas” — another industry “false solution” — does more to entrench harmful agricultural practices than to address climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times to 89 times more potent than carbon dioxide and is responsible for more than a quarter of current warming. Agricultural emissions, primarily from animals, contribute 36 percent of all U.S. methane — the largest domestic source of methane .

The USDA should redirect billions in funds away from climate-intensive agribusiness and toward small farmers growing more sustainable plant-based foods. Changing how we grow food — and what we grow — can take a big bite out of agricultural methane and bring us closer to the emissions reductions required.

We need to treat climate change as the existential crisis President Biden says it is by acknowledging that meat and dairy are part of the problem. We have the infrastructure in place to reduce agricultural emissions; we just need the political will to listen to science, not industry pressure. And we need the USDA to choose our future over industry agendas.

Jennifer Molidor, Ph.D. leads sustainable food campaigns for the Center for Biological Diversity. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferMolidor

Tags Agriculture carbon emissions Climate change food systems Global warming Jennifer Molidor Joe Biden Sustainability Tom Vilsack USDA

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