Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part article.
“The reality is that climate change is not a future threat; it’s here,” said Tom Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary.
Vilsack was moderating a panel discussion regarding climate-smart agriculture and forestry, held during the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. He and the panelists described the urgency in incentivizing and implementing climate-smart practices and technologies.
“Agriculture is one of the sectors most vulnerable to changes that we’ve already seen in our climate,” Vilsack said. “Producers in rural communities have experienced the impacts of the crisis –extreme heat, droughts, floods, severe weather and increasing wildfires.”
Those changes have real effects on the sector’s ability to produce food, fiber and fuel that the world needs.
“We can’t continue on this dire trajectory,” he said. “The human, economic and ecological costs are just simply too high.”
There’s a need to adapt to the threats by positioning agriculture as a leader in tackling the climate crisis, he said. Adopting climate-smart agricultural practices can help. They reduce emissions and sequester carbon; they can help increase productivity and enhance livelihoods as well increase resiliency to already existing climate changes.
President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan includes a framework for significant investments in innovation, research and resources for farmers to support efforts in deploying conservation practices, Vilsack said.
“At its peak, increased investments in climate-smart agriculture could alone reach 100 million crop acres each year, representing activity on as many as 200,000 farms in America,” he said.
There are opportunities for farmers, ranchers and foresters who adopt climate-smart practices.
“U.S. consumers and retailers are demonstrating a preference for agricultural commodities that are produced using climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices,” he said. “Internationally our trading partners are considering criteria and preferences related to the greenhouse-gas performance of imported commodities and associated products. New and expanding markets provide opportunities for farmers and ranchers to undertake climate-smart practices.”
Unlocking markets will be key to tapping into incentives needed to adapt climate-smart practices on the ground, he said.
Initiative finances production
The Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Initiative that Vilsack announced in September aims to finance production of climate-smart commodities. That will be done through a series of large-scale pilots and demonstration projects. It also will finance steps to properly measure and validate environmental results from climate-smart practices.
“We think about 2031 and a farmer – in this case let’s call her Susan,” said Callie Eideberg, director of government relations at the Environmental Defense Fund. “She’s sitting on her back porch in Nebraska. She’s admiring her field and smiling because she has cut her farm’s methane emissions by 25 percent thanks to new technologies for managing manure and cutting enteric emissions. And she’s earned revenue for storing carbon in her diverse high crop yields. She’s taken home cold hard cash by tapping into a financial system that rewards for long-term resilience.”
That vision is ambitious, but the Environmental Defense Fund knows it’s achievable, Eideberg said.
“The key to getting there is to move quickly,” she said. “Climate change is already harming agriculture. Farmers are already facing shorter planting windows and soils that lose water faster as temperatures rise. And they’re either getting too much rain or not enough.”
She referred to a new study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It predicts that declines in global production of staple crops such as corn and rice could begin as early as 2030. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, innovation, incentives and resilience are needed to help farmers adapt to changes and quickly transition to climate-smart practices. Innovation in the form of solutions to cut enteric methane emissions is an example, Eideberg said.
“Methane will cause half of the warming projected for the next two decades,” she said. “We know how to cut methane emissions from manure. But we urgently need solutions to cut enteric emissions. We need innovative research and development to minimize the impact of methane-producing cows.”
Also needed are incentives and voluntary carbon markets that are equitable and that benefit local communities, she said. Credits from such markets need to be scientifically robust and based on agreed-upon standards. Measurements and verification tools also are needed so farmers know they’re making a difference with all the work they put into their farms.
Despite record rainfall and flooding in 2019 across the Midwest, one of the Environmental Defense Fund’s farmer advisers from South Dakota was still able to plant and harvest his corn, she said. The climate-smart practices he had been applying made his fields spongier and able to absorb more water. That farmer should be able to keep farming despite what the climate throws at him. For more farmers to have similar resilience, long-term risk-reduction techniques need to start now.
“The next 10 years will be critical for farmers as we push for transformative solutions for climate change – the most pressing issue of our time,” she said.
Also on the panel was Fred Yoder, a corn and soybean grower near Plain City, Ohio. He has attended for seven years the U.N. Climate Change Conference. Yoder is a founding board member and now co-chairman of Solutions from the Land. He also serves as chairman of the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, which represents all segments of production agriculture.
Farmers need to be encouraged to make a change in the way they produce crops, he said. That starts with economics.
“Farmers like markets and ways to increase productivity and profits,” he said. “But they’re also interested in longevity, managing risk and making sure they can hand off their farms to the next generation. We’re all about outcomes and work toward them.”
But farmers want to know what a particular practice, such as a climate-smart practice, will produce. It must be based on science as well as size-neutral. A small-scale farmer needs access to technology just as much as a large farmer, Yoder said. And it needs to be affordable.
The agricultural and forestry industries can provide climate solutions. They can provide renewable fuels and ecosystem services – such as improving water quality and controlling nutrients with cover crops, he said. No-till can build soil health that would be better able to handle both dry and wet weather.
“Every 1 percent of organic matter that you gain, you can hold another 25,000 gallons of water,” he said. “That will work well in either a dry or wet year.”
To be continued …
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.