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Farming for Our Future: 6 Key Findings about Climate Change and Agriculture

Farming for Our Future: 6 Key Findings about Climate Change and Agriculture

Farming for Our Future book cover.

The harsh realities of climate changes are becoming more apparent and more dangerous around the globe. While policymakers are—inconsistently and insufficiently—beginning to enact measures to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, they still almost completely ignore the need to reform our food systems to address climate change. Both November 2021’s climate conference in Scotland and President Biden’s concurrently released PlanAgriculture was not addressed in the effort to address the highly potent greenhouse gas methane. Despite the fact that our food systems are the largest sources of methane, and ultimately responsible for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Third of global warming. We have to reform agriculture because it is just too simple. ImpossibleTo reach the Paris Agreement goal of 2 degrees Celsius (3.8° Fahrenheit) or less, safer goal of 1.5°C (2.9°F) degrees, without doing so.

Farming for Our Future book cover.

Environmental Law Institute

We spent five years researching the science and law of climate change and agriculture in America to meet this urgent need. We’ve published our findings in a new book, Farming for Our Future – The Science, Law, and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture. The book is intended for policymakers, advocates, researchers, and advocates. It provides the first comprehensive overview of law and policy regarding agricultural emissions in the United States. The book is intended to be more than a review. We also hope it will serve two other important functions.

First, it’s designed to be a blueprint for policy change. We also include hundreds of regulatory and legal changes to reduce net emissions. Some are minor. Some are more radical. All of them are designed to bring us closer to zero net agricultural emissions.

It aims to change the way readers view agriculture. After reading hundreds of papers, combing through previously unpublished data and documents (often acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests), and conducting interviews with advocates, government officials, scientists, and farmers, we’ve had to revise our own views many times, often on critical issues. We’ll have failed as writers if our readers don’t do the same. In the post that follows, we’ve laid out six of our most controversial—and important—findings.

1. Government estimates don’t reflect the reality of agricultural emissions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is About 10% of the total of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. As we began to dive into the research, however, we found that this estimate undercounts agriculture’s actual emissions in four key ways. First, it doesn’t consider the current climate change impacts of Conversion of land in the past or agricultural land’s ability to sequester more carbon—a significant omission since agriculture occupies over one billion acres in the US and over 60% of the contiguous land mass. Second, it doesn’t include a number of agricultural activities in its tally, such as on-farm energy usage, annual land use conversion, or the production of agricultural inputs. Third, EPA’s method for calculating the impact of methane is inconsistent with the need for short-term action and current near-term policy discussions, reducing its estimate of agriculture’s emissions by more than half. EPA uses models with large uncertainty ranges to calculate greenhouse gases emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations and hundreds of million acres of agricultural land. Recent developments ResearchThese models are often too conservative, which is why they are so popular. All these adjustments bring the total GHG emissions attributable the agricultural sector to around one-third of all U.S. emission.

Annual greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are greater than the EPA estimates.

The EPA estimates that agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than it does annually.

EPA’s deceptively low number for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions often leads policymakers and journalists to focus on other sectors when considering climate change mitigation strategies. It also makes it difficult to regulate the worst agricultural polluters. As we discuss in the book, there are a small number of large-scale operations (primarily CAFOs and their suppliers) that are responsible for an immense share of the sector’s emissions, yet they are largely unregulated today. If we want to achieve our climate goals, this must change.

2. Farmers are much smaller in number—and wealthier—than reported

Media reports are often presented Farmers as a large rural constituency They must work hard to make a living.. Our second chapter, co-authored by statistician Bryce Stucki. We use USDA data, government surveys and tax records to prove that this narrative is at best misleading. Official USDA figures vastly overstate the number of farmers by including hundreds of thousands of retirees, hobbyists, taxpayers with “paper farms” (so-classified for tax purposes), who together make up the majority of “farmers.” In addition to significantly inflating the number of farmers in the U.S., these non-farming farms sharply lower USDA’s official income figures since they aren’t intended to turn a profit and often don’t sell any products whatsoever. Moreover, a deeper analysis of survey data shows that the overwhelming majority of farmers are wealthy—even if you don’t count farm assets—and enjoy comfortable incomes.

This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the needs of farmers and ranchers when crafting new policies. On the contrary, we learned much from our visits to farms and ranches (including Peter’s own farms) while researching this book. This does not change the long-held assumption that U.S. agricultural policy should focus solely on the interests and well-being of farmers. Broad swathes of rural population have a stake to reform agricultural policy. They are much larger than farmers. If these reforms are to succeed, it will be crucial to engage these constituencies as well as the farmers already at the forefront.

3. We cannot decarbonize agriculture without increasing our perennial production.

Most proposals to reduce agricultural emissions focus on annual crops and animal agriculture. This is logical at first glance as almost all agricultural emission comes from their production. But while we need to fundamentally change animal agriculture and annual crop production, doing so won’t completely eliminate agriculture emissions. To do that we’ll need to substantially expand the number of trees, shrubs, and other perennial plants on our country’s farms and ranches, by intercropping tree crops, establishing perennial pastures, introducing riparian and field buffers, or adding trees to pasture, among other methods. This is because perennial plants produce a lot more biomass than short-lived annuals. Compare the roots, trunk, and stem of a tree with the roots, stem, and roots of a soybean crop to see how this extra biomass stores carbon. It is easier to track and verify the carbon stored within plants than in soil, which can be difficult to measure reliably. Even conservative estimates suggest that perennial practices sequester up to five times more carbon per an acre than the most efficient annual ones.

A growing number Farmers, Researchers, OrganizationsThey are showing that perennial agriculture can be just like productive as annual agriculture while also providing nutritious food and significantly better environmental outcomes. Unfortunately, U.S. farm policy discourages perennial agricultureThis, among other factors, requires longer funding periods that annual crops. To give perennial agriculture equal footing (much less the leg up it warrants), we’ll need to make a series of important changes to USDA’s research, conservation, and subsidy programs.

4. We shouldn’t rely on long-term soil carbon sequestration, especially to offset emissions elsewhere

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It is extremely difficult to accurately, precisely, and economically measure greenhouse gas reductions due to new farm practices. As mentioned above, current emissions models are extremely uncertain and don’t include important contributions. We should be careful not to rely too heavily on soil carbon growth. The soil carbon content of a single farm can differ significantly between depths, locations, seasons, and even seemingly similar fields. The measurement tools can be used to determine the soil carbon content. It is not standardCollecting enough data to provide reliable readings takes both time and effort. It is possible to be misleading by increasing carbon stocks as they are often offset by increased soil respiration or other greenhouse gases. The measurement of total carbon stocks does not tell us how long carbon will remain in soil. This is dependent on soil chemistry and soil microbial communities, as well as temperature, soil moisture, temperature, and the practices used.  

What are the policy implications? Corporations are showing a growing interest to offset their greenhouse gas emissions via agriculture. However, corporations should be able to meet the requirements of their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. ObligatoryPaying farmers to increase soil-carbon stocks could cause a lot of problems. Since we can’t ensure that gains in soil carbon levels will be maintained—or precisely measure them in the first place—such offsets would often be fictional, especially in the long-term. There are many reasons for soil health to be improved, including its positive effect on agricultural productivity, water quality and climate resilience. But we can’t rely on it to offset emissions from other sectors.

5. Net agricultural emissions can be eliminated completely

Despite the difficulties involved in measuring and maintaining soil soil carbon sequestration, the data is clear: net agricultural emissions can be eliminated both by significantly reducing greenhouse gases emissions and increasing soil carbon sequestration. Farmers and ranchers can reduce greenhouse gases emissions by improving grazing and feeding practices (bovine gut emission is the single largest source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions) and through better manure, crop and soil management. All sectors can make a contribution by switching to less-emissions-intensive foods.

This chart shows how climate-friendly practices can offset agricultural emissions..

We can also significantly increase the carbon stock on farms and ranches. According to a Leading review, introducing agroforestry practices on just 10 percent of U.S. agricultural land could lead to sequestration rates equal to 30 percent of the country’s Total emissions. While some estimates are more conservative than others, reviewers consistently find that persistent practices, along with aggressive emission cuts, are capable to sequester enough carbon to eliminate net agriculture emissions. There are other practices that can be used, whether they are perennial or not. Promote soil health and diversificationYou also have the potential to lower net emissions. There have been many studies that show the benefits of cover crops, longer rotations, rotational grassing, and no-till methods. However, climate-friendly systems will be unlikely to expand to the degree needed if we continue to let large-scale operations—particularly CAFOs—pollute unabated and continue to under-research and under-incentivize the adoption of these practices.

6. Emissions can be dramatically reduced by policymakers now

Federal policy is a major factor in how we grow our food. Tens of millions of dollars in annual subsidies, numerous research- and extension bodies, and environmental regulations (or even more) determine how we grow our food. Regulational carve-outs), tax expenditures, trade programs, and more—all of these shape American agriculture. Often for the worse. The flip side is that these programs can all be quickly reformed and accelerated by the current administration. In addition, governments can use their vast resources at all levels. ProcurementPower to support food production with low-to no net emissions The 2023 reauthorization Farm billCongress also has many options to increase and better target agricultural research, conservation funding, revise crop programs and commodity programs to favor crops that reduce net emissions and to use other federal spending power to help achieve climate neutral agriculture. Lawmakers have introduced Numerous Other Billsto address different aspects of reform. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency both have a multitude of regulatory and other programs that can help transform agriculture from a climate problem into a climate solution.

It is not a scientific question whether we can eliminate all net agricultural emissions. It is a political question. Our book is designed as a guide to answering that question and to inspire the change needed to make it happen.

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