USDA Seeks Input on Climate-Smart Ag and Forestry Strategy

March 17, 2021

The USDA this week published a Federal Register notice requesting public input on the department’s development of a climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategy. Saying it will take comments through April 29, the department characterizes the announcement as an important step toward implementing President Biden’s executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad.

The order directs Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to solicit input from stakeholders as USDA develops a climate-smart agriculture and forestry approach.

SfL welcomes the assertive effort by the USDA to step up and incorporate the agricultural sector into a broader, government effort to address the most pressing threat to not only the future of our farms, ranches and forestlands, but to the wellbeing of all people on this planet.

And SfL is more than ready to step in with its own recommendations on an issue the organization has taken on for more than 12 years. As today’s discussion of agriculture’s role in efforts to address climate challenges by decarbonizing the economy grows, it is worth noting that SfL was an early pioneer leader in this space. There is no greater evidence of the organization’s longstanding history with agriculture and climate change than a carbon policy discussion guide we published in 2009. The paper on the sector’s role in a reduced carbon economy was composed by a distinguished Work Group chaired by SfL Treasurer Nathan Rudgers.

The paper offers cost-effective and socially equitable policy options that can achieve reductions in climate altering greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), while examining the impact of a given climate policy on the agriculture and forestry sectors. Taken into consideration by the Work Group were the macro-economic consequences on the sectors from climate policy, while also examining offset revenue potentials and associated costs,

The focus of the paper even then was how the agriculture and forestry sectors can anticipate or add their voices to national policy development and plan their participation, given that the two sectors can and will deliver substantial emissions reductions and carbon sequestration.

As predicted by that paper, all national climate change policies currently being discussed call for a price for carbon emissions, and the document describes the climate change principles and imperatives specific to the agriculture and forestry sectors. Today, as it was 12 years ago, a price for carbon emissions is an incentive to create emissions reductions that the agriculture and forestry sectors can deliver, and the bulk of the paper describes the conditions under which farmers, ranchers and foresters can best deliver these carbon reduction services.

Ever since the paper was published, SfL’s farm and forestry leaders have been actively studying the challenges posed by climate change and vigorously pursuing the opportunities available to combat those challenges. Years of experience have only strengthened their conclusion that sustainable intensification of production – not only of commodities, but of the production of rural livelihoods and ecosystem and climate services – as well as improved resilience are critically important, co-equal components of SfL’s model for climate-smart agriculture.

Ohio State researcher, Dr. Rattan Lal, the 2020 recipient of the World Food Prize and a key contributor to our 2009 paper on carbon policy, has done considerable work on agriculture’s behalf over the years. His research has brought about recognition of the impact soil carbon has on the climate, noting that the technical potential of carbon sequestration in world soils may be 2 billion to 3 billion metric tons per year for the next 50 years.

On the biofuels front, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences, which is based on joint research by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, shows that depending on the source of the biofuels, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced from anywhere from 40 percent to 96 percent, with little to no engine modification.

Another prime example of the sector’s ever-expanding role in the fight against climate change is an announcement Monday from the American Biogas Council listing the eight fastest growing U.S. biogas businesses, which saw gross revenue grow more than 300 percent from 2019 to 2020. The biogas industry, which includes the development of renewable natural gas through the use of anaerobic digesters at livestock operations, has grown steadily over the last decade. The uptake has been driven recently by developments long recommended by SfL – strong policies and the desire to decarbonize the nation’s gas sector, reduce agriculture emissions and provide reliable renewable energy.

SfL is an advocate for the implementation of precision agriculture, which uses new technologies to increase crop yields and profitability, while lowering the levels of traditional inputs needed to grow crops, including fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides. GPS devices and lasers to level fields (and make water application more efficient) are tools that can benefit farmers and make agriculture more sustainable, all while increasing food availability.

The Feb. 15 order calling for comment on the USDA plans to develop climate strategies acknowledges that “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

The public comment period provides a golden opportunity for those in agriculture to reinforce the positive contributions the sector can provide in a low-carbon economy. SfL applauds the USDA’s foresighted effort to enhance and take advantage of the win-win contributions the ag sector can make while pursuing climate smart agriculture practices. We urge sector stakeholders to use the opportunity to make the case for their role in taking on the intertwined challenges that climate change is creating.

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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.