USDA Sets Climate Goals, But Is This How to Get There?

Climate HubsThe USDA’s climate change efforts are underway. Climate change is now officially embedded in the Department’s strategic goals, one of which seeks to make forests and working lands “more resilient to climate change”. A 2011 Departmental Regulation requires USDA agencies to consider climate change impacts when making long-term planning decisions.

Meanwhile, USDA spending on climate change-related actions has grown in recent years – during FY 2013, USDA says it budgeted approximately $186 million across six of its agencies for climate change related research, outreach, and financial incentives.

USDA and the federal government have come a long way in starting to address the realities of climate change. But until the Department shifts its focus to existing, ‘shovel-ready’, sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change, we will not achieve the level of change that is needed.

Inordinate Focus on Biomass and Biorefineries

Over half of the $186 million in USDA’s FY 2013 climate change dollars were allocated to renewable energy programs —specifically biomass research and development.

According to a recent report, $88 million, or 47% of the USDA’s total climate change budget, went to just two biomass and biorefinery research programs. These programs seek to develop technologies for industrial-scale conversion of agricultural and forestry materials and by-products for fuels and electricity generation.

The inordinate focus of climate change funds on these projects—which will likely benefit only large agri-business interests, and few of them in California—is disappointing. Rather than throwing more millions into technology development, USDA should instead be focusing its efforts on ways to strengthen the resilience of all farmers and ranchers while also achieving on-farm greenhouse gas reductions.

By contrast, financial incentives for farmers to install renewable energy or improve energy efficiencies through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program amounted to less than $13 million (7%).

Practical Research, Financial Incentives, Technical Assistance Still Underfunded

Practical research on sustainable agriculture systems, publications, capacity-building, and educational efforts around climate change were budgeted a total of $85 million, according to USDA. However, the actual amount spent on climate change efforts is likely lower, since that amount includes multiple programs with climate change as one of many foci.

It is worth noting that USDA does not list Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) climate change efforts in its list of relevant expenditures. Many of the conservation actions that NRCS supports through its technical assistance and conservation programs can help to increase farm resiliency while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. These efforts are not reported as ‘climate change spending’ because of the multiple other co-benefits of these practices.

NRCS has also been quite active in developing tools for growers to evaluate their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-friendly practices.

COMET-Farm is an online greenhouse gas accounting system for farms and ranches, developed by Colorado State University in conjunction with NRCS. The tool attempts to analyze cropping patterns and conservation practices to produce an estimate of a farm field’s greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration potential.

Results screen from the COMET-Farm online tool.
Results screen from the COMET-Farm online tool.

Unfortunately, the tool only covers major commodity crops, grasses, and grains in its crop modeling, and so is not particularly helpful to most California growers. The useful “GHG and Carbon Sequestration Ranking Tool”, which ranks NRCS practice standards by their GHG reduction and sequestration benefits, was recently integrated into COMET-FARM.

But these tools are only valuable if growers actually use them.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the decline of the Cooperative Extension system has impacted USDA’s ability to get climate change tools and research out into the fields.

One Extension agent interviewed by the GAO knew of only four climate change Extension specialists in the United States. Meanwhile, NRCS staff levels have declined at a rate of about 1.4 percent annually since 2003.

In recent years, USDA has emphasized the need to turn research findings into technical assistance for farmers—most notably through its NIFA grantmaking—but that’s difficult to do with too few field staff to meet farmers’ needs.

Better Metrics Needed to Evaluate USDA Climate Efforts

One challenge in assessing USDA’s climate change efforts is the fact that they are scattered around the Department. USDA does have a Climate Change Program Office within its Office of the Chief Economist, but that entity is simply responsible for coordinating the efforts taken across multiple agencies.

As mentioned, USDA has established a number of laudable goals and priorities related to climate adaptation and mitigation. But the GAO found that the Department does not do a very good job tracking its progress toward those goals.

For example, USDA has encouraged farmers to plant cover crops and practice no-till farming through multiple efforts across agencies. But it does not track the adoption of these management practices in its performance measures.

Meeting the Challenge

The USDA recently launched the website for its Climate Hubs, a new initiative announced by Secretary Vilsack earlier this year. The Hubs are intended to “build capacity within USDA to provide information and guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales”. Although many details about the role of the Climate Hubs remain unclear, the website will be a good place to look as this important effort gets off the ground.

The ‘Sub-Hub’ at UC Davis is still in its initial development stages, and CalCAN looks forward to working with its staff in the coming months to help inform its priorities, goals, and strategies.

Taking action on climate change – which encompasses both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to a changing climate, across diverse regions, cropping systems, and economic contexts – is obviously an enormous challenge for USDA to prioritize, and we commend the Department for doing so.

Still, its efforts have been stymied by some misguided priorities and declining staffing levels. A refocus toward sustainable farming solutions, alongside a reinvestment in technical assistance and financial incentives, will bring us closer to climate-friendly agricultural systems.

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