December 30, 2015
As 2015 wraps up with a new international agreement on climate change, drought still plagues the west, and much of the country is in the midst of an unseasonably warm holiday season. Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers are already facing devastating impacts from the realities of climate change – including severe floods, extreme heat and drought, and increased pressures from changing disease and pest patterns.
The new year presents a final window of opportunity for the Administration to act upon its commitment to climate change, including critical initiatives to support agricultural adaptation and mitigation. USDA has already laid out its Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, which identify existing structures and programs that the agency can use to address the undeniable connection between climate change and agriculture.
Below we present the top 10 opportunities for USDA to address climate change in the final year of the Administration. These opportunities can all be seized without new legislative authority, and they provide the Administration the chance to leave a lasting climate legacy.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
1. Set a Nationwide Goal for Cover Crop Adoption in 2016 – Cover crops have been found to significantly increase soil carbon by increasing carbon inputs from plants. A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that cover crops remove tons of carbon pollution from the air, significantly cut crop losses, and prevent the loss of a trillion gallons of water. The 2012 Agriculture Census reported 10.3 million acres of cover crops nationwide, and a wide range of organizations, companies, and foundations have already urged USDA to increase that number substantially by 2020. NRCS should set a quantitative goal for increased cover crop adoption in 2016 and then aggressively advance the effort to reach the goal through its working lands conservation programs.
2. Increase Support for Crop Rotations that Benefit the Climate – The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) offers a supplemental payment for producers who adopt Resource Conserving Crop Rotations (RCCRs). RCCRs are among the most effective systems to improve soil’s ability to sequester carbon, control pests and weeds with less reliance on pesticides, and enhance soil fertility with less need for chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, the current payment rate of $15 per acre is still not high enough to reward and incentive RCCRs’ significant conservation and climate benefits. NRCS should increase the supplemental rate beginning with the 2016 CSP signup period that begins in late January, and widely promote the conservation benefits of RCCRs, including carbon sequestration and the development of resilient agricultural systems.
3. Promote the Soil Health Crop Rotation to Encourage Widespread Adoption – Crop rotations can address soil health by adding diversity to the cropping system, maintaining residue throughout the year, sustaining a living root, and minimizing soil disturbance. The soil health crop rotation enhancement was first made available through CSP in 2015, and it ranks higher than any other enhancement in terms of its recognized environmental benefits. NRCS should actively promote the availability of this enhancement for 2016, highlighting the direct climate benefits of diverse cropping systems, continued residue throughout the year, living roots, and minimized soil disturbance. NRCS should carefully analyze how many producers adopted the soil health enhancement in 2015, and commit to increasing adoption in 2016.
4. Increase Rankings for Key Conservation Activities – There are several key activities that offer climate benefits and opportunities for sustainable systems, but unfortunately many of these CSP enhancements have received environmental benefit scores that are far too low in relation to their conservation benefits and required producer investment. In particular, NRCS should increase scores to recognize the climate benefits of incorporating native grasses and/or legumes, intercropping to improve soil quality and increase biodiversity, and improving grazing management. Increased rankings for these enhancements will lead to higher adoption rates and consequently provide increased climate benefits.
5. Support Producers Transitioning to Organic – Organic farming and ranching practices can help enhance resilience to climate change while also reducing reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the elimination of fossil fuel-based synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. In order to increase organic production in the United States, NRCS should increase support for producers looking to transition to organic. This can be achieved by raising the scores for organic transition enhancements in CSP, as well as improving the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative for transitioning producers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has urged NRCS to spend the upcoming year revising and revamping the Organic Initiative to better support transitioning producers, while simultaneously improving access to general EQIP for certified organic producers.
6. Encourage Management Intensive Rotational Grazing – NRCS engages with livestock producers to provide a wide range of financial and technical assistance around grazing management. Whether NRCS is supporting fencing, grazing plans, or providing other services, field staff should utilize the opportunity to encourage the adoption of management intensive rotational grazing systems, which bring significant climate benefits. These methods emphasize frequently moving cattle to new pasture and preventing overgrazing so pasture plants have continuously high biomass. Additionally, this kind of production generally does not require tillage, so soil is undisturbed and carbon remains physically protected from disturbance. The Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) also presents an opportunity for NRCS to recognize the climate benefits of rotational grazing by ensuring that agriculture land easement plans (ALEs) achieve the Resource Management System level of protection.
Farm Service Agency (FSA)
7. Ensure Land Expiring from the Conservation Reserve Program Retains Climate Benefits – The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) allows farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant resource-conserving land cover to protect soil, water, and wildlife habitat. This conversion leads to increased soil carbon sequestration rates, but given that CRP most contracts last for 10 to 15 years, it is essential to ensure that climate benefits are retained through the preservation of permanent cover. In particular, CRP Grasslands Initiative has enormous potential to sequester carbon and return biomass to the soil. FSA should set a goal for the number of acres of CRP grasslands to be enrolled in 2016, ensuring that the acres enrolled in the new component of the program have high GHG benefits. All Grassland Initiative acres should include comprehensive Resource Management System conservation plans to ensure maximum bang for the buck.
8. Encourage a Transition from Corn and Stover to Perennial-Based Ethanol – Additional federal policies are needed to encourage a transition from corn and stover-based ethanol production to ethanol made from perennial energy crops like grasses and willows. In particular, FSA should ensure that the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which provides incentives to help farmers grow advanced bioenergy feedstocks and connect with relevant refineries in their area, moves to provide greater support for perennial crop production. Perennial cropping systems that maintain soil coverage have much greater potential to allow soils to approach their soil carbon sequestration potential, and this form of production should be incentivized through existing federal programs to support ethanol production.
Risk Management Agency (RMA)
9. Eliminate Crop Insurance Cover Crop Termination Guidelines – Currently RMA has guidelines in place for crop insurance policy holders regarding when cover crops need to be terminated, in order to ensure that they don’t scavenge water from the cash crop, thus reducing yields. The guidelines define the period before planting by which a cover crop must be terminated. While these guidelines do provide more flexibility than previous termination rules, they continue to discourage farmers from trying cover crops out of fear they could loose their crop insurance coverage, which unfortunately results in lost potential for carbon sequestration and increased resiliency. RMA should remove barriers to risk reducing conservation practices, including cover crops, in order to acknowledge how these practices significantly contribute to soil health, carbon storage, and even can reduce yield variability over time. RMA should eliminate cover crop termination guidelines and instead rely on Good Farming Practices procedures that a farmer must follow in order to receive a full crop insurance indemnity when they have a loss. In addition, RMA should adopt a new rule to clarify that farmers who adopt an NRCS conservation practice are by definition following Good Farming Practices.
Research, Education, and Economics
10. Increase USDA’s Research Emphasis on Climate Change Impacts – The Administration should scale up efforts to both mitigate the impacts climate change will have on the agricultural sector, as well as help farmers better prepare and adapt to changes in growing seasons, water availability, and pest and disease pressures. More research is needed is in this area specifically to develop new plant varieties and animal breeds that are better suited to future growing climates. For example, plants that are better able to conserve water and withstand drought conditions or specific varieties of crops that are more resistant and hardy to new warm-weather diseases or emerging pests are urgently needed by farmers across the country. We therefore urge the Administration to increase USDA’s research emphasis on climate change impacts within the Agriculture Food and Research Initiative (AFRI), specifically to increase resources available for public plant breeding research.