- Special Report
Executive Summary: In many ways, farmers are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, but they are also strategically positioned to be part of the solution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. agriculture directly contributes about 10% of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the entire national economy. However, with the right incentives, farmers can significantly reduce their emissions and sequester carbon on their land – thus turning the agricultural sector into a net carbon sink and taking large steps toward mitigating climate change.
It is increasingly important that farmers should take climate change seriously and work to turn from the current course – both for the future viability of the farming sector, as well as the security of global food supplies. Extreme weather is already intensifying: in 2019, for example, areas of the Midwest went from flooding to drought within the space of three months. Over the next several decades, the situation will only get worse: higher average temperatures and more variability in precipitation (resulting in more intense droughts and more extensive floods) are projected to lead to significant reductions in crop yields and livestock performance.
In addition, changes in climatic patterns are expected to make crops and animals more susceptible to pests and diseases, as well as expand the geographic ranges in which pests, diseases, and invasive weeds might flourish. There are countless examples of how this could be devastating. For the corn industry, hotter and drier summers in the U.S. Midwest could lead to more frequent problems with aflatoxin – a dangerous mold that would render harvests worthless. Some estimates find that increased aflatoxin contamination could cause losses to corn farmers valued at up to $1.68 billion annually.
Fortunately, the U.S. agricultural industry already has strong solutions to help farmers reduce their emissions, sequester carbon, and mitigate climate change. These solutions vary by sector, but include implementing reduced tillage, cover cropping, rotational grazing, improved feeding practices for livestock, methane capture from livestock manure and crop waste, and improved energy efficiency for on-farm activities such as irrigation and crop drying, as well as the increased generation and use of renewable energy. If these practices were put into more widespread use, it could help the industry become a consistent net sink for GHG emissions.
The U.S. government already has a significant array of voluntary programs in place to encourage farmers to adopt these types of practices, primarily coming in the form of technical assistance, cost share assistance, and tax incentives. Some examples of current impactful government programs include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which combined will provide about $2.55 billion in financial assistance for fiscal year 2021, under the provisions of the 2018 farm bill. There are also a number of federal incentives for production of energy from methane digesters, wind turbines, and solar panels. These include grants and guaranteed loans under USDA’s Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP), assistance for planning from AgStar, and loans under the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan program, both of which are operated jointly by USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE).
And yet, in spite of these programs, government efforts remain inadequate and unfocused, as U.S. agriculture continues to generate significant GHG emissions. In order to change course, and ultimately encourage a critical mass of farmers to adopt sustainable practices, more resources are needed under all the federal programs described above. In addition, more funding is needed for agricultural research and development (R&D) to help farmers improve the efficiency of key inputs such as energy, fertilizer, and irrigation water. Advances in animal and plant genetics, for example, also offer opportunities to improve agriculture’s GHG profile.
With the right encouragement and incentives, U.S. agriculture could be a climate change mitigation success story – moving from a significant contributor of GHG emissions to becoming a net carbon sink. This paper will outline a number of opportunities for reducing emissions from agricultural sources, and discuss how current incentives and government programs could be structured to maximize farmer participation. While climate change is a significant threat to the agricultural industry and global food supplies, it is not too late to turn course. Farmers can leap to the forefront of the broader U.S. campaign to mitigate climate change before it is too late.