U.S. Agriculture set to tackle carbon emissions with USDA plan

Last month, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, unveiled a plan to reduce 50% of emissions in the agricultural sector by 2050 called the “Innovation Agenda.” Perdue is the former Republican Governor of Georgia, and has been criticized previously by the media for suppressing environmental research in the agricultural sector. However, the current administration has supported decreasing funding for climate research across all national departments, making this move by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) divergent from typical federal strategy.  

Agriculture makes up 9% of total fossil fuel emissions in the United States, coming primarily from livestock methane release and inefficient land management techniques. Tackling outdated agricultural practices is long overdue, and while this plan does not come close to strictly regulating the industry at the level needed, it is an important symbolic step for the conservative administration.

Why is addressing climate change important for farmers? 

Farmers are already feeling the effects of climate change, which will only continue to worsen. Changing weather and precipitation patterns, along with increasing temperatures, make it exponentially more difficult for crops to grow in regular cycles, and also contribute to soil degradation. 

Michael Schwarz, a blueberry farmer owner in Waynesboro, Georgia, has noticed this. “Our losses have been happening earlier and earlier. The last three years have been devastating. If it’s going to change, and it will continue to change like it has for the last three years, then we’ve got to change the varieties we put in the ground, we’re going to change our market strategy, [and] we’re going to have to change what we do as far as preventing the freeze that could happen again,” he said

Increasing natural disasters, particularly floods and draughts, also impact the agricultural community and will continue to do so as they happen more often, devastating crops and livestock and worsening erosion. 

What does the agenda look like? 

The Innovation Agenda is an initiative to prepare and assist farmers through resources, programs and research “to meet the food, fiber, fuel, feed, and climate demands of the future,” while maintaining a goal to increase agricultural production by 40% by 2050. Production is measured by comparing the ratio of the market value of agricultural product outputs to agricultural product inputs.

The agenda includes a number of methods to do so, with a focus on improving technology and efficiency. These encompass: 

  • Enhancing carbon sequestration methods to store carbon dioxide back in the soil by capitalizing on innovative technologies and increasing research spending in the topic 
  • Increasing the use of and improving the efficiency of biofuels (fuels produced from plants)
  • Improving data collection, as there is currently very little data gathered regarding food production and conservation techniques 
  • Reducing food waste by 50% from 2010 levels 
  • Improving water quality by reducing nutrient loss by 30% by addressing specific areas of need

These goals are outlined very broadly, without a large amount of specificity for how goals will be achieved. The agenda also states that it will reach its targets “without regulatory overreach,” but rather through increasing research and capitalizing on technological advances, stating that it will “align USDA resources, programs, and research to provide farmers with the tools they need to position American agriculture as a leader in the effort to meet the food, fiber, fuel, feed, and climate demands of the future.”

Will this plan actually be effective? 

The USDA’s plan is certainly not in line with international goals that prioritize carbon neutrality by 2050. These goals emphasize the necessity for extremely strong climate policy to pass immediately,  in order to prevent global temperature increases from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has described would result in catastrophic effects across the globe. 

Read our summary of the IPCC’s special report on reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming

The IPCC outlines policy solutions through what they call “Climate-smart agriculture,” which have the goal to contribute to broader economic growth, poverty reduction and sustainable development, and also recommend regulations on the amount of emissions farmers produce through policy. While there is not one specific policy governments should adopt to do so, a goal to have net zero emissions by 2050 is very important. 

Perdue’s plan is not at all close to meeting these standards. It does not actually regulate emissions, but only increases research capacity and improves access to energy efficient technology for farmers. The agenda’s goal is to cut emissions in half by 2050. The most recent data shows that the agricultural sector emitted 621 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent in 2017, meaning that by 2050, the Innovation Agenda would have the sector emitting somewhere around 310.5 million metric tons, far from the net zero emissions outlined by the IPCC. 

The focus on biofuels that the agenda stresses is also problematic. Biofuels are fuels produced from plants, typically agricultural crops, and are used to replace the use of gasoline and diesel. There are two primary types of biofuels: ethanol, made with corn and sugar, and biodiesel, made with palm and canola oil or soy. 

While using biofuels generates less carbon emissions than oil or gas, there are other economic and environmental issues to consider. As biofuels are increasingly used, the demand for the cheaper crops used to create them increases. Therefore, farmers who may not have been able to afford to grow them are able to in large masses and need space to do so, which often means cutting down forests. This has been a particular issue in Brazil and Indonesia since biofuels have been introduced, and many argue that the emissions caused by burning down these forests are greater than emissions saved through using biofuels. 

“Regardless of how effective sugar cane is for producing ethanol, its benefits quickly diminish if carbon-rich tropical forests are being razed to make the sugar cane fields, thereby causing vast greenhouse-gas emission increases,” said Ozzie Zhener, a visiting scholar at Northwestern University.

Biofuels can also harm vulnerable communities. As prices for corn, sugar cane, and palm oil  increase, food staples for low-income families across the globe become less accessible, which threatens people’s ability to access critical nutrition. This is especially an issue as population continues to increase, and demand for less expensive food rises (by 2050, food demand is expected to rise by 70%). It also takes a huge amount of agricultural energy to make biofuels — the World Resources Institute found that for biofuels to provide just 10% of global transportation fuels by 2050, which require about 30% of the world’s energy to produce, a year’s worth of crops would be used.  

So, what’s the up-side? 

Despite these problems, for an administration that has generally moved the country backwards in environmental policy, Perdue’s plan is an important display of support for climate measures coming from a Republican administration that has refused to address climate in any capacity thus far. 

A Republican push to address climate change is eventually inevitable as the effects of climate change become more prominent and severe, and as more and more individuals begin to prioritize climate policy in their voting. Two-thirds of Americans currently believe that the Trump Administration is doing too little to tackle climate change and Republicans are beginning to see a need to address these issues in order to get reelected and prohibit extreme economic decline. 

The announcement also stems from a larger push from the agricultural sector to become more energy efficient. On February 19th, a coalition of 21 agricultural organizations from across the U.S., representing millions of farmers and ranchers, launched a new group called Farmers for a Sustainable Future (FSF) and committed to making changes to become more sustainable. 

Is carbon pricing the future of U.S. agriculture?

This announcement is also important because it prepares the agricultural sector for more changes to come. Perdue hinted at endorsing carbon pricing last week, stating, “if it is a social goal and social priority there, then let’s put a price over carbon emissions and I think you can really see farmers show out in their carbon sequestration efforts.” 

Although carbon pricing was not included in the USDA plan, Perdue’s positive statement about the policy is important considering he is currently the only member of the Trump administration to come out in support of carbon pricing (although, after his resignation as the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis has also come forward in favor of the policy). 

However, after Perdue’s statement went public, pressure from Republicans caused him to back down from endorsing carbon pricing as a policy. A spokesperson from Perdue’s team clarified in a statement, “if the free market puts a value on carbon, the secretary believes the agriculture sector is well-positioned to quantify the benefits of soil carbon sequestration to take advantage of that economic opportunity for producers. He does not endorse the idea of a carbon tax or government price-setting.”

The agricultural sector has traditionally been hesitant to consider a carbon pricing policy in fear of rising fuel prices, but there has been a recent shift in this perspective. In January, the Farm Bureau, the largest and most powerful agricultural lobbying group, came out in support of research for “unbiased science-based research on climate change,” which is likely to include carbon pricing studies. 

How can carbon pricing benefit agriculture? 

The agricultural sector has the potential to reap huge benefits from carbon pricing, and many farmers understand that. “The severe climate disruptions brought by climate change are much more of an economic threat to us on the farm. A fee is something we can budget for and make smart decisions around as we run our farm business. Severe climate events we cannot,” said Andrew Kurowski, owner of The Benson Place farm. 

Under a well designed carbon pricing policy, the agricultural sector can benefit greatly, not just through mitigating climate impacts. Many proposed carbon pricing policies reinvest funding specifically into the agricultural sector, such as through investments in renewable energy sources and innovative techniques for farming technology. Community land use planning, conservation tillage, and sequestration have all been included in proposed bills. 

The agricultural sector relies heavily on fossil fuels to power many of their tools, and carbon pricing can cause fuel costs to increase. Therefore, many well designed carbon pricing bills exempt diesel fuels for tractors and other agricultural machinery in the short term, considering the unique necessity for fuel usage in the sector, such as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act proposed at the national level. 

Agricultural communities also have the potential to make large sums of money off of projects that pay farmers to use more sustainable techniques. A study by economist Bruce Babcock found that a national $20.00 price on carbon would increase a farmer’s cost by $4.50 an acre in fuel usage, assuming there are no provisions to protect farmers in the hypothetical bill. However, under this program, a farmer would also earn $8.00 an acre using carbon capture methods, such as carbon sequestration, no-till farming, or regenerative agriculture. This means that farmers would profit $3.50 an acre if a carbon price like this was enacted. 

Methods such as these have already been attempted and have proven to be successful, such as Indigo Agriculture’s Terraton Initiative, which creates a carbon marketplace that allows for businesses and individuals to offset their own carbon emissions by paying farmers to keep carbon in the ground. In doing so, farmers are able to afford using more sustainable practices, such as no-tillage farming, cover crops, crop rotation, fertilizer reduction, and livestock integration. 

Other versions of this market exist as well, such as Nori, a start-up that creates an online marketplace to pay farmers to keep sequester carbon. Trey Hill, owner of Harborview Farms, reported profiting more than $80,000 off of the payments, enough for to capture 5,340 metric tons of carbon. A market created by a carbon price would similarly profit farmers. 

While the Innovation Agenda does not consider carbon pricing or more regulatory techniques, it is clear by Perdue’s statements that carbon pricing may be a federal policy goal in the future, and could greatly benefit the agricultural sector. The agenda also marks the first step for the federal administration to consider climate and use terminology recognizing the threat of climate change, displaying how it has become a massive issue of public concern, and spurring action from an administration that has previously denied its existence.

Featured Image: Photo Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange. Cow photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash