Saturday, May 14, 2016

Agriculture, a Huge Contributor to Climate Change, Is Starting to Clean Up Its Act

Lush Agriculture Field - Click to Enlarge.
Last April, the United States Department of Agriculture announced plans to tackle agriculture’s contribution to climate change.  Dubbed the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture & Forestry, the plan included a set of voluntary but incentive-based programs in ten key areas, from soil health to nutrient management.  All told, the USDA estimated that the programs would help agriculture cut its emissions by 120 million metric tons by 2025 — the equivalent of taking more than 25 million passenger vehicles off the road.

Now, a year later, the department is reflecting on the progress it has made through a newly released report that serves as the first annual check-in on the initiatives.

“It’s an important topic,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told ThinkProgress. “Agriculture wants to play its role in trying to reduce emissions, and to try to allow the United States to adapt and mitigate to a changing climate in the most efficient way possible.”

In 2014, the agricultural sector accounted for about 9 percent of the United States’ emissions. Compared to sectors like electricity or transportation — which accounted for 30 and 26 percent respectively — agriculture’s contribution to global warming might seem relatively small.  But unlike other sectors, which are facing mandated regulations like the Clean Power Plan or fuel efficiency standards, agriculture has been subject to relatively few regulations regarding greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.  That means that if farmers want to avoid regulations, Vilsack and the USDA must make the case that voluntary programs are enough to help the agricultural sector cut its emissions and prepare for climate change.

“Other industries within the economy are going to step up their game,” Vilsack said.  “We don’t want a circumstance where agriculture will look like it’s lagging behind.”

Vilsack thinks that so far, however, the USDA’s voluntary programs are working.

In the last year, the USDA has worked to expand its existing programs to help farmers become familiar with the voluntary building blocks.  In the area of soil health, for instance — a main pillar of the plan’s emissions reduction strategy — the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) established a Soil Health Division dedicated to helping farmers adopt long-term soil management techniques to help encourage the formation of healthy, carbon-storing soil.  As part of a Soil Health Initiative, the USDA is also working with farmers to establish guidelines for the use of cover crops, which research suggests can help boost soil health.  In the last few years alone, according to Vilsack, the amount of cover crop activity in the United States has increased by 350 percent.  The USDA also has a goal of doubling the amount of no-till acreage across America (land where farmers don’t disturb the soil through tillage) from 50 million to 100 million acres.

Additionally, the USDA announced Thursday a new $72.3 million investment in boosting carbon storage through soil health.

Through the NRCS, the USDA also spent the last year working on improving nitrogen stewardship among farmers, especially across the Midwest, which has been plagued with issues related to fertilizer overuse and runoff.  The NRCS funded two projects — one $5.3 million project with the Illinois Corn Growers Association and another $9.5 million project with the Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership — meant to advance science-based conservation techniques to help farmers apply the right amount of fertilizer, in the right places, at the right time.

Read more at Agriculture, a Huge Contributor to Climate Change, Is Starting to Clean Up Its Act

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