USDA Launches New Climate Incentives Initiative

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Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

On April 23, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the USDA’s new climate change initiative, which will incentivize agricultural producers to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, increase carbon storage, and expand renewable energy production. The initiative builds on the Department’s recent efforts to make working lands more resilient to climate change.

USDA will partner with farmers and ranchers to work on ten ‘building blocks’ for climate action. The first focuses on Soil Health, and outlines an ambitious goal of promoting no-till systems on over 100 million acres by 2025. This effort will promote conservation tillage and no-till systems, as well as planting cover crops and managing organic inputs and compost application.

Research shows that for farms to effectively reduce GHG emissions, it is important to combine these conservation strategies using a whole-farm system approach, considering how practices work together to produce the desired result. Without a whole systems approach, single practice changes may not produced climate benefits. For example, switching to a no-till system may lead to increased use of herbicides, which emit GHGs during their manufacture.

For California growers, this is a timely push for soil health. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) just released a proposal for its Healthy Soils Initiative to improve storage of organic matter in agricultural soils. Both CDFA’s and USDA’s new initiatives recognize the importance of rewarding farmers and ranchers for soil carbon management, a key step in the state and nation’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

Another one of USDA’s building blocks is Conservation of Sensitive Lands, an effort that aims to enroll lands with “high greenhouse gas benefits” into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). As CalCAN describes in our Triple Harvest report, protecting California farm and ranchland from development is critical to achieving the state’s climate protection goals and maintaining its long-term food security. In particular, agricultural systems that are biologically diverse, such as organic polycultures and integrated crop-livestock operations, play a major role in reducing GHG emissions, capturing carbon in soils, and offering a variety of co-benefits that bolster agricultural resilience against climate change.

Many of California’s most innovative farmers and ranchers are already engaged in some of the proposed conservation practices and easement programs, such as Bob Giacomini of Marin County, whose farm was profiled as a model for the benefits of USDA’s initiative.

To fully realize the potential of USDA’s ‘building blocks’ in California, however, both the state and the nation must secure sustainable sources of funding to promote these “shovel-ready” climate solutions on farms and ranches. With that funding must also come increased recognition that these practices are not just another discrete ‘initiative’ to be pursued, but an integral part of 21st-century U.S. agriculture.

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