Payments for Ecosystem Services Key to Enabling Agricultural Solutions to Sustainable Development Goals and an Agricultural Renaissance

January 16, 2020

As discussions on climate change, clean water, hunger, poverty and biodiversity grow both on the domestic and global stages, the role of agriculture in addressing these mega-challenges is filling a growing role at the policy table.

Statewide efforts facilitated by Solutions from the Land (SfL) and driven by farmer-leaders in North Carolina, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, Delmarva Peninsula and, most recently, Iowa – as well as on the international stage through the SfL-facilitated North America Climate Smart Agricultural Alliance (NACSAA) – are promoting Climate Smart Agricultural (CSA) practices to achieve:

  • The sustainable production of food, feed, fiber, energy and ecosystems services;
  • The enhancement of climate resilience;
  • The reduction and sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • The contribution of high value solutions to sustainable development goals.

 CSA practices vary from relatively simple steps such as reduced tillage and cover crops, to more complex, technology-based systems such as precise fertilizer and crop protection applications, crop varietal selection, and plant breeding. For livestock operations, feed management, rotational grazing, waste-to-energy bio-digestion that produces renewable natural gas, and other forms of manure management contribute to CSA goals.

But these steps towards environmentally smart crop, livestock and timber production do not come without cost. Those who make a living from the land while staying in the good graces of a benevolent Mother Nature require capital to put new and sometimes technologically demanding practices into place – resources which are not readily available. Without financial returns for the additional benefits of these practices, such as higher prices for value-added products or income directly linked to their use, it can be difficult to reconcile these new efforts with short-term financial sustainability for the operation.

What must be understood by policymakers, the public and those who could benefit from these public benefits is that investments in CSA systems generates a multifold payoff. CSA practices on farmland generate greater retention of carbon in the soil, which, in turn, reduces the atmospheric instability generated by greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A more stable climate – and the stemming of volatile conditions that can be generated by climate change, like drought, wildfires, harsh winds, torrential rains and flooding – is a priceless return on a necessary investment, assuring stable crop production, and, in turn, food security.

Through the UN’s Convention on Climate Change negotiation sessions (the most recent at the Conference of Parties 25 in Madrid last month), SfL and NACSAA have ardently promoted CSA enabling polices to encourage payment for ecosystems services on the international stage. There are now growing opportunities for stakeholders to make their support for critically needed enabling policies known to policymakers in Washington.

SfL has been a consistent supporter of the efforts being made by the House Select Committee on the Climate Change Crisis (HSCCCC), which is seeking recommendations that will help members “investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies and innovations to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis.”

Last week, top House Energy and Commerce Committee members released what they called the legislative framework of the draft Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act – “an ambitious new climate plan to ensure the United States achieves net-zero greenhouse gas pollution no later than 2050.” Hearings and stakeholder meetings will be held throughout the coming year, and potential hearing topics include adaptation and climate resilience. Feedback can be submitted to CleanFuture@mail.house.gov.

Meanwhile, bipartisan Climate Solutions caucuses have been formed in the House and Senate, and members of both are seeking input from stakeholders on policies lawmakers should consider in dealing with the ongoing threats to our climate.

A new analysis from the Center for American Progress finds that taking climate action can drive more than $8 billion per year into rural communities, including close to $22,000 in additional income for the average family farm in the United States. The findings support SfL assertions that climate actions taken by farmers and ranchers build on their bottom lines. The study also serves to support calls for government financial support for operators who must invest more to implement the additional practices that help stem changes to climate conditions.

Programs and policies that enable payments for ecosystem services can help farmers, ranchers and foresters make investments in practices and technologies that help curb climate change and simultaneously deliver solutions to other sustainable development goals. Ensuring that growers are rewarded for the steps they take to stem the climate threat while keeping agricultural operations not only viable, but also thriving, while guaranteeing the security of food, feed, fiber and energy production, must be a principle topic of policy discussions on any stage.

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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.