The USDA Plan to Better Measure Agriculture’s Impact on the Climate Crisis | Civil Eats

The USDA Plan to Better Measure Agriculture’s Impact on the Climate Crisis

In this week’s Field Report, news on the agency’s latest effort to invest in soil science and correct discrimination, plus reports on global hunger and pesticides’ impacts on birds.

Educator Shane New displays healthy soil at CS Ranch during the Soil Health Academy, which teaches regenerative agriculture techniques, in Cimarron, New Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Educator Shane New displays healthy soil at CS Ranch during the Soil Health Academy, which teaches regenerative agriculture techniques, in Cimarron, New Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has funneled billions in tax dollars toward farming that it deems climate-smart. But what exactly that means is widely disputed.

Yesterday, the agency took a big step toward refining its definition of that term by announcing a major initiative intended to improve the data it uses to guide efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and make farms more resilient to climate change.

The USDA is using $300 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to fund the initiative, which includes expanding data management and improving its models and tools.

“It is important that we embrace the notion of climate-smart agriculture and forestry, but to do that, we’ve got to get the science and the innovation right. We have to have accurate, reliable measurements of the impact . . . of changes and the practices that we’re embracing,” Vilsack told reporters at a press conference. “We get those from constantly monitoring those practices and making sure that we’re reporting them and verifying those results.”

The USDA is using $300 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to fund the initiative, which includes expanding data management, improving its models and tools, and strengthening the agency program responsible for maintaining metrics on both greenhouse gas sources and sinks in agriculture. Multiple agencies within the USDA will be involved, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), and the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The announcement came as the world reeled from the hottest week ever recorded, including record heat on land and at sea and devastating flooding in the Northeast. It also comes alongside Republican efforts to rescind a great deal of the federal funds directed toward addressing climate change.

However, the world’s top climate scientists agree that transformational changes to agriculture are one of the many shifts necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Over the last two years, experts and advocates have pointed out the need to fill in major gaps in the science around ag’s role in the climate landscape, especially related to carbon sequestration in soil. Those gaps include questions about which practices really improve carbon storage, how soil type and climate change impact storage, and how long carbon actually sticks around in soil. Answers to those questions are critical if the USDA’s current climate programs are going to make a real impact.

Speaking to reporters, William Hohenstein, the director of the USDA’s Office of Energy and Environmental Policy, acknowledged that confidence in soil carbon estimates is one of the agency’s biggest challenges on climate. “The National Soil Carbon Monitoring Network [one of the programs announced] will allow us to have systematic coverage, where we’re taking soil samples and assessing soil carbon density across different soil types, different management systems, different tillage types, and different strategies with regard to the use of cover crops,” he said. “That cross-sectional data will be really important to help us calibrate the models that we use to quantify—at the farm scale and the national scale—carbon densities. And our expectation is we will be able to go back to these sites over time and actually measure changes in carbon density.”

Hohenstein mentioned collecting and measuring data from fields where conservation practices such as cover crops or agroforestry have been implemented, and NRCS has already invested in outreach for soil carbon sampling.

During the announcement yesterday, Secretary Vilsack related the efforts to two other climate-related initiatives at the USDA. Metrics from the $3.1 billion Climate-Smart Commodities program will feed into the data collected and be used to improve the agency’s modeling on soil carbon, he said. At the same time, improving data and soil carbon measurement will allow farmers and ranchers to take better advantage of emerging carbon markets. (The agency is currently tasked with developing standards for carbon markets as part of the Growing Climate Solutions Act that Congress passed last December.)

While environmental and farm groups disagree on many of the finer points of policy, and the administration’s approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (such as with carbon markets), groups across the political spectrum—from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to the American Farm Bureau Federation-organized Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance—have called for improvements to data collection and research on climate and farming.

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“Today’s announcement will help the USDA and farmers make better decisions about which practices work and which do not,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

Read More:
Climate Change Is Walloping US Farms. Can This Farm Bill Create Real Solutions?
The IPCC’s Latest Climate Report Is a Final Alarm for Food Systems, Too
What the Historic Climate Bill Means for Farmers and the Food System

Another Attempt to Right Racist Wrongs. Last week, the USDA also invited farmers who have faced past discrimination within the agency’s loan programs to apply for a relief payment from a $2.2 billion fund. The Discrimination Financial Assistance Program (DFAP) is the latest chapter in a now decades-long saga of correcting systemic discrimination faced by farmers of color. After settlements in the 1990s failed to fairly compensate many farmers, some in Congress launched new efforts in the 2020 American Rescue Plan, but funds designated for Black farmers were tied up in court by white farmers alleging race-based discrimination. Lawmakers then replaced that relief program with a new one in the Inflation Reduction Act, one that this time omits race. As part of that program, the USDA began distributing $3.1 billion to farmers struggling to make payments on their loans while it designed the DFAP. The agency also brought on partners including the Land Loss Prevention Project and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to get the word out about the program and help guide farmers through the application process.

Read More:
How the Long Shadow of Racism at USDA Impacts Black Farmers in Arkansas—and Beyond
Black Farmers Still Await Debt Relief

Global Hunger. According to a just-released flagship report from the United Nations on the state of food security around the world, more than 9 percent of the world’s population—or 735 million people—faced chronic hunger in 2022. Close to 30 percent faced food insecurity classified as moderate or severe. While that number wasn’t a jump from 2021, it did represent 122 million more people than in 2019 before COVID-19. (In the U.S., emergency safety net measures prevented a catastrophic rise in food insecurity during the pandemic. Those measures are just ending now, and many are seeing an alarming uptick in demand for emergency food.)

In addition to pandemic-related hunger, experts pointed to climate change disruptions and significant increases in food prices as factors exacerbating the problem. “We desperately need a new recipe for addressing hunger—based on the right to food, less reliance on volatile global markets, and on countries producing more food for their own people,” said Jennifer Clapp, food security expert with IPES-Food and professor at the University of Waterloo, in a statement reacting to the report. Hunger rose most dramatically in Africa, where companies and foundations have poured billions of dollars over the years into developing U.S.-resembling commodity agriculture systems based on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Read More:
US Groups Invest Billions in Industrial Ag in Africa. Experts Say It’s Not Ending Hunger or Helping Farmers
How Benefit Cuts May Create a ‘Perfect Storm’ for Food Insecurity

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Bad for the Birds. In a 120-page report published on Tuesday, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) called neonicotinoids’ impacts on birds “a predictable environmental disaster.” Neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” are systemic insecticides that are now used to coat corn, soy, and other seeds planted on hundreds of millions of acres across the country. They are highly toxic to bees, and over the last decade, evidence on how they harm other animals has been steadily emerging.

In 2013, ABC published an initial report that found a single neonic-coated seed could be enough to kill a songbird. In this update, researchers laid out new evidence from the past 10 years that shows exposure can also cause symptoms like convulsions and loss of motor control in birds. Long-term exposure at lower levels has also been linked to reproductive harms. At the same time, neonics reduce birds’ food supply by killing insects on farmland and in waterways.

“In the 10 years since ABC’s first major report on neonics and birds, U.S. regulations have changed very little,” said Hardy Kern, director of government relations for ABC’s Birds and Pesticides Campaign. “Some states and agencies have taken minimal actions, but we have a long way to go before these chemicals are no longer a threat to birds, native pollinators, and aquatic systems.” In June, environmental advocacy groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to adequately regulate neonics.

Read More:
Beyond Bees, Neonics Damage Ecosystems
Pesticide-Coated Seeds Are the Focus of a New Push for EPA Regulations
When Seeds Become Toxic Waste

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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