January 31, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
American farmers know all too well the effects of our changing climate. If it’s not flooding, it’s drought, then flooding again.
But American farmers — whether they know it or not — have also been quietly fighting the effects of climate change for decades through innovations in land use and management. And if policymakers provide the right kinds of support, farmers can do much more to address climate impacts, protect their livelihoods and maintain our nation’s food supply.
One of the great challenges we face in stabilizing the climate is feeding the world’s growing population without losing forests, wetlands and other ecosystems that capture and store much of our carbon emissions. That means finding ways to sustainably produce more food on the farmland we already have.
The American farmers who grow our food have excelled here. Agricultural output has more than doubled in the United States since the end of World War II — and on 25 percent less farmland. That has helped to keep mouths fed without further intensifying pressure on global forests and grasslands to grow more food.
Today, American farms contribute less than 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but that percentage is expected to grow. As other sectors such as transportation and power are decarbonized, if agriculture holds steady, it will become one of the largest remaining sources of emissions. But farmers can help lead the way to reducing emissions — and technology and innovation is going to be the key.
There are actually a lot of things farmers can do to lead the way to agricultural decarbonization without decreasing yield. Focusing on soil health — including cover crops and several other practices — can sequester carbon in the soil and reduce nitrous oxide emissions. Precision agriculture practices that reduce the land, water, fertilizer and pesticides needed to grow crops can drive increases in productivity while cutting input costs and emissions.
Nitrogen inhibitors can reduce the loss of fertilizer from the soil and slash nitrous oxide emissions. Anaerobic digesters can help dairy farmers capture renewable natural gas.
Farmers can adopt several conservation practices designed to work with nature — not against it — like integrating trees into pasture systems and adopting crop rotations. These measures can benefit farm fertility, erosion resistance, carbon storage and profitability. And future breakthroughs may allow farmers to grow even more food on less land, plant crops that are more resilient to extreme weather or even grow commodity crops such as oilseeds from perennial varieties that hold more carbon in their roots.
To unleash this potential, policymakers can invest in training and financial assistance to get the technologies we already have into farmers’ hands. Another clear priority is to restore U.S. leadership in agricultural research and development. R&D generates new discoveries that spur technological innovation across the private sector.
Yet U.S. investment in agricultural R&D has stagnated since the 1980s — and it’s now half that of China. Policymakers can also encourage the United States Department of Agriculture to better utilize its own data to understand the value of conservation for farmer profitability and for the environment.
Understanding this relationship would open the door to using programs such as crop insurance to encourage conservation practices that enhance resilience and increase carbon sequestration.
Finally, policymakers can empower farmers to innovate. As an example, Congress recently established a new $25 million USDA grant program that pairs financial assistance to farmers who demonstrate soil health practices with funding for monitoring soils and scientific research.
This pilot program reflects exactly the kind of agricultural innovation program we need but on a much larger scale. Funding for this particular program would need to increase 20-fold, according to a recent World Resources Institute assessment, to make real progress understanding soil carbon dynamics across regions, soil types and farming systems.
Solutions like these warrant bold investment with quick action from Congress. That is an imperative not only for dealing with emissions from agriculture but for securing food production, livelihoods and economies across rural America.
At the end of the day, farmers can lead. But we need to ensure they have the tools to do so.
Jamey Mulligan is a senior associate at World Resources Institute, where he works to advance climate change solutions in natural and working lands.
Moira Mcdonald is interim director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program, where she has led the foundation’s Mississippi River and coastal initiatives for the past decade.
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