Exploring Agriculture’s Role In Addressing Climate Change

Posted on Friday, November 8th, 2019 by
Natalie Lounsbury with tillage radish cover crop. Tillage radishes are not only edible, they’re an excellent way to build soil health and sequester carbon. Photo credit: Jack Gurley

This is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC advocates for federal policy reform for the sustainability of food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. See the original post.

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held a hearing last Wednesday, October 30, 2019 to discuss the role of agriculture in identifying and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. This is the first time that the Select Committee has focused on the potential for America’s farmers and ranchers to be a positive force in the nation’s efforts to combat climate change. In this post, we highlight key issues raised during the hearing, and also outline NSAC’s key policy principles for how Congress can help farmers respond to and be part of the solution to the climate crisis.

At the hearing, the Select Committee explored ways to help the agricultural sector increase carbon storage in farms while also improving farm resiliency against severe weather events and increasing farm profitability. Key topics of discussion included: increasing adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, with special emphasis on cover crops, conservation tillage, and diversified crop rotations; boosting research funding around climate adaptation and mitigation; enhancing technical and financial assistance to increase conservation activities; rewarding farmers for delivering ecosystem services.

Hearing witnesses included stakeholders from the agriculture, farmland conservation, food business, and energy sectors. Both the witnesses and members of the Select Committee spoke at length about the different farm bill programs helping farmers adopt climate-smart agricultural practices. Many of those discussed included conservation programs that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) helped to develop and/or has been instrumental in protecting over our 30+ year history.

Farm bill programs highlighted during the hearing included: the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and the Rural Energy Savings Program were also mentioned as programs through which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has already seen successes implementing on-farm energy sustainability and efficiency activities.

Dr. Moore-Kucera, one of the witnesses representing the farmland conservation organization, American Farmland Trust, explained to the Committee that there are already low-cost, and proven methods available through which farmers can sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on crop and ranchlands – many of which are supported by the federal programs aforementioned. In her testimony, she mentioned that if cover crops were adopted on 25 percent of cropland and if 100 percent of tillable acres adopted conservation tillage, the U.S. could reduce agricultural emissions by a quarter.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were interested in metrics and quantifying the impact of various climate-smart agricultural practices (e.g., cover crops, conservation tillage). Witnesses agreed that more research is needed around the metrics and reminded the Select Committee that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the climate crisis. Democrats had questions about carbon markets and carbon taxes, and both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged the need for increased broadband across rural communities to engage more effectively with precision agriculture techniques and enable the collection of data that could then inform carbon sequestration metrics associated with various agricultural practices. Regarding carbon markets and carbon taxes, Fred Yoder, the only farmer witness on the panel, explained that a tax credit would be helpful to get buy-in from land-owners, which is important given that more than 50 percent of farmland is rented.

Many of the witnesses encouraged the Select Committee to make agriculture a key partner in fighting climate change, and they suggested that such change come through a comprehensive climate bill and/or a climate-focused farm bill. Witnesses were also adamant that legislators ensure a prime seat at the table for farmers and ranchers when climate discussions and policy debates are had.

While our nation’s response to climate change mitigation and adaptation may only have picked up steam recently as a topic of serious conversation on Capitol Hill, for decades NSAC has been committed to helping American producers grow crops and raise animals in more sustainable, resilient ways. We believe that farmers and ranchers must be directly involved in the development of practices and policies targeted toward agriculture in order to identify new and innovative solutions to the climate crisis. Producers are working on the frontlines of climate change, and can bring their first-hand experience to bear as we have these critical discussions.

NSAC and our members across the country are leading the charge to develop climate-friendly policies that have buy-in from farmers and and policymakers alike. As debates around climate legislation heat up in our nation’s capitol, NSAC will be pushing for climate policies that:

  • Support producers’ efforts to achieve climate-neutrality by establishing a national goal to make agriculture climate-neutral, increasing incentives for farmers to adopt conservation practices, protecting existing farmland and ensuring its affordability, and implementing structural reforms to federal commodity and crop insurance programs to ensure minimum requirements for conservation.
  • Strengthen sustainable and organic production systems by increasing investments in federally-funded research on sustainable agriculture so that the impacts of practices like agroecology, cover crops, and conservation tillage can be better understood and more widely adopted.
  • Support climate-friendly nutrient management by strengthening conservation support for soil health strategies that will contribute to a reduction in agricultural nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Increase support for composting within federal conservation programs. Composting is a climate-friendly alternative to landfill and manure lagoon disposal systems, which have tremendous negative environmental impacts.
  • Enhance carbon sequestration on sensitive and marginal farmlands through programs like the Conservation Reserve Program. Soil acts as a carbon bank, taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. Preventing development and disturbance on sensitive and marginal lands helps keep carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere.
  • Support climate-friendly pasture and grazing-based livestock production systems by ending subsidies for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Pasture and grazing-based livestock systems have the potential to increase the amount of carbon stored in our soil, whereas CAFOs have massive greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution impacts.
  • Assist farmers and ranchers in adopting energy conservation, energy efficiency, and on-farm renewable energy production by continuing to support effective programs like REAP. Farmers and ranchers don’t just produce food to eat – many also are developing innovative renewable energy projects on their land. Energy saving measures and energy producing facilities that use wind, solar, biomass, and other renewable sources can decrease energy costs, provide additional income for farmers, ranchers and rural businesses, and decrease U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources.
  • Develop new, regionally-adapted public crop cultivars and livestock breeds by expanding federal investments in public seed and animal breeding research. A variety of well-adapted crops not only reduces the impacts of extreme weather, pests, and disease, it also protects against price fluctuations in the market. By supporting public plant breeding research, we can better ensure that all farmers have access to high performing, locally adapted seeds – no matter where they farm or what they grow.

Final Thoughts

To cope with climate change that is expected to be both rapid and unpredictable, and for farmers to remain economically viable in the face of these challenges, agricultural systems must be resilient and able to adapt to a changing climate.

We believe that federal policies that are based on the principles outlined above will be those best positioned to support our farmers and ranchers in proactively addressing the climate crisis, as well as their own resilience and profitability. These science-based principles can be applied to existing farm bill programs that directly address farm production and land stewardship issues, however policy work beyond the farm bill is also needed.

Our collective efforts to tackle the climate crisis and execute mitigation and adaptation strategies will require that we take a broad perspective on climate change as it impacts the entire farm-to-fork food chain. In particular, the food and farm community will need to address the disproportionate impact of climate disruption on communities of color, as well as low-income and rural communities – both on and beyond the farm.

NSAC calls upon federal policy makers to prioritize support for federal policies and programs that enable farmers and ranchers to adopt sustainable and organic agricultural production systems to address the challenges posed by a rapidly changing and disruptive global climate and increasing extreme weather events.


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