TODAY’S STUDY: Policy For Agriculture And Climate Change
Agriculture And Climate Change: Policy Imperatives and Opportunities to Help Producers Meet the Challenge
November 2019 (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition)
The goals of the NSAC Policy Position Paper are to present the latest science on climate change in agriculture, and to identify priorities for federal policy and USDA programming to help farmers and ranchers meet the growing challenges of climate disruption, and contribute to climate change mitigation through carbon (C) sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from their operations.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) published in 2018 documents multiple adverse effects of climate change on U.S. agriculture, including:
• Intensified droughts, floods, and storms
• Stresses on crops, livestock, and farm personnel from higher summer temperatures
• Disruption of seasonal development, flowering and fruiting in horticultural crops
• Shifting pest, weed, and disease life cycles and geographic ranges
• Disproportionate impacts on economically disadvantaged rural communities
Record-breaking Midwest flooding in 2019, intense land-falling hurricanes in 2017 and 2018, and historic droughts in California in 2014 to 2017 highlight the urgent need to help producers build the resilience of their operations to ongoing and future impacts of climate change (“climate adaptation”).
Agriculture affects climate in two ways: direct GHG emissions, and net loss of C from soil and biomass. Direct agricultural GHG emissions account for 8.4 percent of the U.S. total. Major contributors include nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilized soil (49 percent), enteric methane (CH4) from livestock (32 percent), and GHG from manure storage facilities (14 percent). Currently, loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) as carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of soil erosion and in-situ soil degradation contribute another 10 to 12 percent of annual human-caused GHG (global estimate). However, improved agricultural practices for soil health and resource conservation can potentially sequester sufficient SOC and biomass C to make U.S. agriculture climate neutral. USDA policy and programs must emphasize soil health and support producers to become part of the climate solution through C sequestration and reduced GHG emissions (“climate mitigation”).
The most practical and cost-effective way to remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere is through living plants and soils. Farmers and landowners can sequester tons of C per acre in soil and perennial biomass through best management practices for soil health, crop and livestock production, and agroforestry.
Research has demonstrated that agroecological farming and ranching systems, including organic, sustainable, conservation agriculture, and permaculture, can sequester and reduce direct agricultural GHG emissions. For example:
• Sustainable organic or conservation agriculture systems can build ~500 lb. C/ac-year in cropland soils.
• Management intensive rotational grazing (MIG) can reduce direct GHG emissions from livestock production and sequester at least one ton of C/ac-year.
• Agroforestry and silvopasture can accrue more than one ton soil + biomass C/ac-year.
• Best soil health management on the world’s agricultural lands plus reforestation of idle and depleted lands could reduce atmospheric CO2 in the year 2100 by 156 ppm.
• Best soil health management and crop breeding for nutrient efficiency show potential to improve N cycling and reduce N2O emissions.
• Diversion of manure, yard waste, and food waste from lagoons and landfills into compost production reduces GHG emissions and provides a soil-building amendment.
Our farms and ranches can improve energy use efficiency and become major producers of renewable energy for use within the agriculture sector and beyond. Solar and wind show great promise as low-carbon energy sources, while biofuel production from agricultural biomass requires careful lifecycle assessment and consideration of social impacts.
Based on these and other research findings, NSAC has developed the following policy priorities related to climate change and agriculture:
• Support producers to make U.S. agriculture climate-neutral.
• Remove barriers and strengthen support for sustainable and organic production systems.
• Support climate-friendly nutrient management to reduce N2O emissions.
• Support composting of manure and other organic “wastes.”
• Protect C sequestration potential of sensitive and marginal lands.
• Support climate-friendly livestock production systems, end subsidies for CAFOs.
• Support on-farm energy conservation and low-carbon renewable energy production.
• Fund public plant and animal breeding for climate-resilient agriculture.
Recommended USDA programmatic support for these priorities include:
• Increased emphasis on climate mitigation and adaptation throughout Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) working lands and easement programs, and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
• Increased research into climate impact assessment, public cultivar development, and agroecological systems that minimize net GHG and maximize soil health and resilience.
• Whole farm emphasis across USDA programming, including Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) insurance.
NSAC urges an immediate transition to a resilient agri-food production system based on sustainable and organic practices detailed in this paper. The current challenges faced by farmers, ranchers and rural communities will intensify unless we implement integrated strategies to deal with our changing climate and build resilience to other disturbances.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) supports an immediate and environmentally beneficial transition to a resilient agri-food production system based on sustainable and organic agricultural systems and practices. We call upon federal and state governments to prioritize sustainable agriculture systems and policies that enable farmers, ranchers and rural communities to address the challenges posed by a changing climate through a variety of mechanisms. We have identified the highest priority areas for change with detailed recommendations. Top priority mechanisms include land use practices that maximize carbon (C) sequestration in soil and plant biomass, nutrient management to minimize nitrous oxide (N2O) release, and advanced grazing management to replace concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
NSAC and its members believe that it is possible and necessary to begin building this resilient agricultural system and employing sustainable practices immediately. Part of this requires removing disincentives for sustainable production through government programs such as single-crop insurance subsidies and addressing structural barriers that incentivize overproduction of commodities and market consolidation. We also believe that implementing sustainable practices can be affordable and cost-effective for producers, especially with government support, since the costs of implementing climatemitigating and adaptive production systems and practices will be offset by reduced costs related to energy, fertilizers, and other inputs and often result in increased yields. Taking insufficient action will be more costly.
Climate change poses a serious threat to our environment, our rural communities, our farmers and ranchers, and the millions of Americans who rely on them for food and fiber. Shifting to a more resilient, sustainable agricultural system will mitigate climate change while building an agri-food system that is better for our planet and its people. Failing to do so will result in devastating consequences for people, agriculture, and the environment.