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Using Farm Bill To Combat Climate Change

According to the National Academy of Sciences, “it is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken. Our present energy course is not sustainable.”

The American Meteorological Society, Geological Society of America, and American Association for the Advancement of Science all agree that climate change is real and likely caused by human activity. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified climate change as a threat to public health and welfare.

Scientists have identified the culprit as emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxides (N2O), methane (CH4), and other “greenhouse gases” that build up in our atmosphere, trapping more of the sun’s energy.

Agriculture: Part of the Problem

Farming equipment that uses carbon-rich gasoline or diesel fuel can contribute to the problem. Energy intensive fertilizers and pesticides can also contribute to the problem.

Cattle, pigs, sheep and other livestock give off some 37% of the world’s methane emissions and 65% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions (through belching, flatulence, and livestock waste).

When native prairie is broken out, as continues to happen in the USA, large amounts of carbon are released into the air. When forests are cut down for cropland, as continues to occur in many third-world countries, large amounts of carbon are also released.

Agriculture: Providing Solutions

While agriculture and forestry contribute a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions in America and around the world, agriculture and forestry also have the potential to be an important part of climate change solutions.

Practices and systems that protect native prairies, woodlands and wetlands; reduce on-farm energy use; and reduce emissions from livestock can all help combat climate change by reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases.
Other practices like restoring grasslands, better grassland management, reduced tillage of croplands, organic farming methods and planting trees can actually take carbon out of the air, storing it in plants and root materials.

Some of these practices also help fish and wildlife, natural systems, and agricultural systems adapt to the climate change that is already occurring, by building resilience into these systems.

Storing Carbon

Plants take carbon dioxide from the air, and use energy from the sun to turn CO2 into plant material (photosynthesis). Growing trees can store large amounts of carbon in the limbs and roots. Perennial plants like native grasses can also store large amounts of carbon in their extensive root systems.

Carbon is also a key component in soil and an indicator of soil health. Some farming practices can build up the carbon content in the soil.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can provide payments to farmers who adopt farm and ranch practices that increase soil carbon levels. EQIP payments can help farmers transition to organic farming systems, which have been shown to increase the carbon content of the soil while also using about one-third less energy than conventional systems. EQIP payments are already being used to encourage farmers to adopt no-till cropping systems, which can store more carbon in the soil than conventional tillage systems. When combined with organic production systems or winter cover crops, no-till or reduced-tillage systems may even store more carbon in the soil than is released by the equipment and chemicals needed to produce the crop.

EQIP or Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) payments can help farmers adopt better grazing management systems that can boost carbon stored in the soil. The CSP can also be used to encourage resource-conserving crop rotations that store carbon in the soil while reducing energy and water use.

The Conservation Reserve Program is being used to reward farmers who convert marginal cropland to grassland, boosting soil carbon levels. The CRP is also being used to encourage farmers to plant trees in windbreaks, shelterbelts and small wood lots, which can store carbon for decades to come.

The Grassland Reserve Program and Farm and Ranchland Protection Program can provide payments to farmers to restore and better manage native prairie and other grasslands, and to protect those uses through permanent or long-term conservation easements.

Practices like organic farming, better managed grazing, restoring grasslands and planting trees can also produce direct benefits for wildlife, by increasing available habitat or removing threats from pesticides.

Reducing Emissions

Farm Bill conservation programs can also help farmers and ranchers reduce the greenhouse gas emissions they are responsible for. That can be done by adopting equipment and practices that use less energy, installing renewable energy systems, switching to production systems that use less energy-intensive inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or adopting livestock production systems that reduce or capture emissions.

As a result of the 2008 Farm Bill, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) payments could now be used for on-farm energy audits that identify cost-effective energy conservation and renewable energy options. USDA loan programs could be used to help farmers invest in the equipment or strategies identified in the energy audits.

Research is showing that different livestock production methods have very different ‘carbon footprints.’ Stockpiling cattle manure has been shown to produce many times more greenhouse gas emissions than composting systems, and liquid waste storage systems (like lagoons) produce even more emissions than stockpiling manure.

EQIP payments are being used to install systems that capture methane from livestock lagoons. EQIP can be used to help producers adopt manure composting systems that reduce emissions. EQIP could also be used to help livestock producers adopt livestock production systems that rely less on energy-intensive feed inputs.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) payments can be used to help farmers and ranchers adopt systems that are more sustainable and reduce energy use, such as resource-conserving crop rotations or organic farming systems.

EQIP and CSP payments are also being used to encourage farmers to use soil testing, nutrient plans, pest scouting and integrated pest management to reduce their use of energy-intensive fertilizers and pesticides. The result is less use of carbon-based energy overall, and fewer direct emissions of ammonia and other greenhouse gases given off by nutrient application.

Leveraging Multiple Benefits

In the cases noted above, Farm Bill conservation programs can encourage farmers to adopt practices and systems that help store carbon or reduce their emissions. However, those same programs can also encourage farmers to adopt conservation practices that have no impact on climate change -- and in a few instances, actually make the situation worse.

To better focus Farm Bill conservation programs to combat climate change, USDA will need to identify the practices and systems that will contribute the most to storing carbon or reducing emissions, and then provide priority in awarding contracts to farmers and ranchers who agree to adopt those practices and systems.

That approach would recognize both the significant role that America’s farms and ranches can play in the fight against climate change, and the many wildlife, water quality, soil conservation, and other benefits now provided through Farm Bill conservation programs.

Research Needs

Decisions about Farm Bill conservation programs need to be based on the best available science. The issues involve complex biological systems, and the greenhouse gas and carbon storage impacts of a particular practice can vary considerably depending on the location, soil, climate, availability of water and many other factors.

Much research has been done, but much more is needed to better understand the impact of different farming systems and the factors involved. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program both allow funding for on-farm research, which could be used to better understand both the climate impact and the impact on wildlife and other resources of different farming practices and management systems.

Wildlife Benefit

In many states, Farm Bill conservation programs represent the largest pot of money available for private land conservation work. They provide tens of millions of acres of wildlife habitat, and help rare and common fish and wildlife survive on America’s private lands.

Adding climate change to the suite of conservation benefits targeted by these programs can benefit wildlife in two ways:

Boosting overall funding for these conservation programs, through climate legislation or other means, could provide even more benefits for fish, wildlife and our environment.

This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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