USDA Climate Smart Initiative Shows Promise, but Repacking Failed Technologies Won’t Work

Posted on Friday, June 24th, 2016 by

USDA released a report on the first year results of their Climate Change Building Block efforts last month, along with their 3-year plan for the initiative as it continues. USDA developed the Climate Change Building Blocks to guide their work in supporting Climate Smart Agriculture, allowing farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to adapt to and help mitigate for the changing climate, through practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forests. The ten building blocks include:

  • Pages from building-blocks-implementation-plan-progress-reportSoil Health
  • Nitrogen Stewardship
  • Livestock Partnerships
  • Conservation of Sensitive Lands
  • Grazing and Pasture Lands
  • Private Forest Growth and Retention
  • Stewardship of Federal Forests
  • Promotion of Wood Products
  • Urban Forests
  • Energy Generation and Efficiency

Agriculture and Forests Acknowledged for Pivotal Role in Greenhouse Gas Reductions

CalCAN is pleased to see the USDA acknowledging the essential role natural and working lands can contribute to mitigating climate change: As this update shows, USDA is confident that the agricultural and forestry communities can continue to play an important role in reducing GHG emissions and increasing carbon storage in the Nation’s forests and soils.”

Some of the year’s highlights include establishing a Soil Health Division within NRCS, providing technical assistance to farmers for implementation of healthy soil practices, nearly doubling land conserved for riparian buffers, and pilot projects to understand the quantitative greenhouse gas emissions reduction value of pastured land. USDA also recently allocated $72.3 million specifically for climate-smart agriculture practices that support these building blocks. Those funds are being made available this summer to farmers and ranchers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

USDA’s 3-year plan moving forward outlines quantitative greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, partnerships USDA can foster to achieve goals, and key actions they plan to take over the next three years for each of the 10 building blocks.

We have identified some significant highlights, concerns, and recommendations.

Soil Health in Top Third of Proposed Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets

USDA estimates that soil health practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 Metric Tons by 2025, ranking in the top third of the greatest reductions of the ten Climate Change Building Blocks.

USDA’s key actions have a strong emphasis on training agencies and people on healthy soil management practices so that they can better provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. CalCAN believes technical assistance to agricultural producers is crucial to successful implementation of healthy soil management practices.

Worrisome Partnerships and Narrow Building Blocks

While we support USDA’s effort to build partnerships, some of those partners, like Monsanto, are repackaging old technologies like GMO systems with No-Till agriculture as “climate-smart”.  We know better. There’s nothing smart about the fossil fuel heavy approach of GMO seeds that require heavy fertilizer and pesticide inputs. This narrow thinking will only constrain our climate solutions.

Within the Livestock Partnership building block, we are discouraged by the sole focus on digesters as the only method for reduction of methane emissions from livestock. As identified in our dairy methane report, we know that a singular focus on digesters is entirely too narrow, where pastured-dairies (i.e., grazing) and ‘dry’ management practices, which can turn manure into valuable compost, can boast beneficial greenhouse gas reductions without the economic risk of digesters.

Recommendations Moving Forward

Overall, CalCAN would like to see continued diversification and additional strategies included across relevant building blocks. For example, while the Soil Health building block aims to adapt 10 NRCS soil conservation practices, we would like to see additional practices like compost applications, hedgerow planting and more. And, as mentioned above, much more can be offered to dairy producers seeking ways to reduce potent methane emissions while providing multiple benefits.

CalCAN is a member of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). NSAC members developed some concrete next steps in “10 Ways that USDA Can Address Climate Change in 2016.” Certainly progress is being made. But more can be done to improve agriculture’s resiliency to rising temperatures and greater weather extremes.


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