What exactly is “climate smart agriculture”?

What’s also sub-optimal is that Congress has funneled the majority of climate-smart agriculture funding through existing conservation programs that have been far more effective in shoveling farmers money than in reducing emissions.

For example, the law on reducing inflation will pay extra $8.45 billions in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which in theory helps to finance eco-friendly activities, but in practice has mostly financed ordinary agricultural activities. The most common use of EQUIP the funds are for fences, generally not considered a viable climatic solution. A large percentage of EQUIP dollars support the construction of farm buildings, water tanks and other facilities, as well as infrastructure for feeding operations for confined animals that most conservationists despise. Farm conservation programs are perpetually underfunded and oversubscribed, but if the Biden administration just uses the new money to help more farmers do the same things, it will waste a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shift the climate needle.

That said, Congress directed USDA to prioritize actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stressed that its goal is not to extend the status quo. The language of the law on reducing inflation EQUIP even recommends a specific push for feed additives that can reduce methane from cattle burps and farts, a technology that is not yet approved for use in the United States but may one day reduce the climate impact of beef and dairy products.

To return to the question at the beginning of this section, there are three basic approaches to making agriculture less of a climate problem. One is the direct reduction of emissions on farms and livestock, including methane from gaseous cattle, rice paddies and manure stored in lagoons; nitrous oxide from fertilizer and manure deposited in the pastures; and carbon dioxide from tractors and other fossil fueled equipment. Another is increasing crop and livestock yields in order to produce more food with less land, which would indirectly reduce emissions from deforestation by limiting agricultural expansion. The third is to sequester more carbon on farms and livestock, not only in the soil, but also in trees and other vegetation.

Bonnie said the administration is committed to all three approaches and the White House lists all three on its inflation reduction law fact sheet, but the details matter a lot. The feds could increase yields by helping farmers buy more fertilizers and other chemicals, but that could increase emissions on farms. Or the feds could promote more diversified crop rotations and organic techniques that could reduce chemical emissions and store more carbon, but if they reduce yields, they will require more land to be cleared to produce the same amount of food. Basic conservation efforts that take farmland or strips of farmland out of production can also damage the climate if they induce more logging to replace food lost elsewhere.

It can get complicated. But it’s not all complicated and it’s worth highlighting the solutions that are relatively simple.

Smarter use of fertilizers, precision farming and other high-tech solutions

Here’s a crazy fact: Only half of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers (which are usually made from fossil fuels) actually end up fertilizing crops. Others flee into the environment, where they pollute rivers, aquifers and streams, create a dead zone the size of Rhode Island and Delaware in the Gulf of Mexico, and litter the air with nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas. 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Here’s a simple idea: let’s not waste so much fertilizer! It’s expensive for farmers, especially lately, and it’s a disaster for the planet.

In fact, we have already shown how to get more nitrogen in plants and less in the environment. Some farmers apply slow release fertilizer, “which gives the soil more time to absorb nutrients and helps reduce runoff. Many American farmers also have self-driving tractors that use GPS technology and machine learning to apply the optimal amount of fertilizer in the fields where it is needed.

It would be smart for the climate to spread these technologies as widely as possible. And there are many other agricultural practices that we already know can help.

High-tech tractors are just one example precision agriculture ”solutions able to fuse digital technology with satellite technology to optimize irrigation, the application of pesticides and herbicides, livestock feeding and other agricultural activities to maximize yields while minimizing resources. Solid separation ”and other manure management techniques can reduce emissions from feedlots, while abstraction and other water management techniques can reduce emissions from flooded rice fields. Planting trees in pastures provides carbon storage and shade for livestock in an overheating world – and there are $1.5 billions in the law on reducing inflation to plant trees. Installing solar panels on barn roofs is a win over the climate.

These are no regrets solutions, and the administration should help implement them as quickly and as widely as possible. Unfortunately, even the universal deployment of those proven role-playing games would not eliminate agricultural emissions.

This means that the USDA it will also have to implement some more experimental solutions and document which experiments will develop. Bay Area company Pivot Bio sells alternative fertilizers that use microbes to help crops extract nitrogen from the air instead of dumping costly and environmentally harmful chemicals onto it. Researchers discovered that chemical nitrification inhibitors ”or even grasses raised for similar purposes can prevent manure left in pastures from turning into nitrous oxide. Why not fund a huge demonstration project to see if my beloved pongamia trees can continue to produce high-yielding soy equivalents without chemicals or irrigation on marginal farmland?

And yes, it also makes sense to perform regenerative experiments. So far, the hype about carbon farming, in books, seminars and documentary narrated by Woody Harrelson Kiss the earth, far exceeded its results. The global 4 For 1000Movement got its name from the idea that it increases the carbon content of the world’s agricultural soils by just barely 0.4% could substantially solve the climate crisis. This may be true, because there is a huge amount of agricultural land; the problem is figuring out how to increase its carbon content.

However, it is worth testing whether forms of grazing in rotation ”and more “holistic management” of livestock could increase carbon in pastures without depressing yields. That wasn’t the case when I visited climate activist Tom Steyer’s regenerative beef ranch, but maybe there’s a better way. The scientific evidence that reducing and eliminating tillage can increase soil carbon does not match the hype, but again it is worth trying to find ways to increase soil carbon that are not based only on nutrient increase. . There is $300 million in the new climate law for USDA to spend on quantifying carbon sequestration, and Bonnie said it should help reveal what works and what doesn’t.

The best answer to the skeptics is: Hey, we take measurement and monitoring seriously, ‘”Bonnie said. We know we have a lot to learn. “

Learning is good, and since agricultural soils already contain more carbon than the atmosphere, it would be very helpful to learn how to make them contain even more. But the climate smart agriculture debate often seems to assume that more carbon in the soil is the only solution, and we’ve already learned that’s not true.

The world needs to hurry up and produce far more food with far fewer emissions, and we shouldn’t assume, as this week’s top journalist said just before his recent job change, that the alternative to a regenerative future is too gloomy to contemplate. We should constantly contemplate alternatives and finance those that look promising.

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