CAST Report: USDA Can Offer Big Tools to Stem Climate Change

July 1, 2021

An organization with a wide range of experts from the scientific community issued a report this week that says agriculture can provide 10-20 percent of the additional sequestration and emissions reductions needed for the nation to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The document from the Ames, IA-based Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) provides a summary of different ways the agricultural sector can provide mitigations to climate change and sequester carbon dioxide.

The scientists says agriculture and forestry are the only sectors that have the potential to be a net sequestration sink for fossil-fuel generated greenhouse gases because of their ability to isolate carbon in soil and plants, while also reducing powerful, climate-changing methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

The paper addresses several key topics that recently have become more prominent among policy makers in their discussions of agriculture and its roll in addressing climate change, including nutrient and pest management, animal systems, ag technologies, the food supply chain and carbon markets.

While the CAST experts also note that the USDA has not historically been at the center of the public conversation on federal climate policy, the Biden administration has made clear that the department must – and will – play a critical role in meeting the White House climate goals.

President Biden laid out his plans for taking on climate change in November, when the Climate 21 Project was unveiled. The initiative aims to tap the knowledge of more than 150 experts with high-level government experience and have them deliver actionable advice for a rapid-start, whole-of-government climate response.

The CAST scientists note that the USDA has discretionary financial  resources and agency expertise that enable the department to (1) partner with agriculture producers to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) through carbon sequestration and emissions reductions; (2) reduce GHG emissions from rural energy cooperatives; (3) bolster the resilience of private working lands and public forests and grasslands to the effects of climate change; (4) promote sustainable bioenergy, wood products, and other bio-based materials, (5) contribute to the scientific understanding of climate change, and (6) invest in climate-smart economic development in rural communities.

The CAST experts also note that given current economic conditions, investments in climate change at the USDA can create and support rural jobs in agriculture, forestry, conservation and related businesses, all contributing to the economic viability of rural America. They cite research showing that investments in agriculture, including forestry and conservation, produce 20 to nearly 40 jobs per $1 million in expenditure.

But the CAST report’s authors also emphasize a point long pushed by SfL – it is critical that agriculture, forestry, and other rural stakeholders view themselves as partners to the USDA to achieve climate goals.

The Biden administration is directing the department to invest in natural climate solutions, incentivize climate smart agriculture, promote rural investment through financial tools, decarbonize rural energy, bolster green energy and smart grids, and prioritize federal investment to address wildfire.

Noting that agricultural science and technology will play a critical role in each of the priority areas, the paper explores the potential for the USDA to emphasize collaboration, incentives, the historic resiliency and innovation of agriculture and forestry, and the critical role that rural America can play in helping address climate change while creating jobs and economic opportunities.

The report summarizes each of the key recommendations and priorities where current agricultural science and technology can be applied and where new investments in agricultural science and technology will be critical to meeting the goals of the administration.

SfL fully endorses a key principle laid out in the report: that innovation in economic and social fields is critical to creating environments where adoption of new mitigation practices and technology by farmers and ranchers is incentivized. We agree that the desirable goal is to empower farmers and ranchers to incorporate mitigation practices and technology into their operations, not only because they are environmentally sound, but they will also give producers an advantage.

In observation of Independence Day, the SfL blog will not publish next week. We will return the week of July 12.

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