NSAC's Blog

A Call for Climate-Focused Agriculture Policy

November 18, 2019

Field of clover cover crop with a sunset in the background

Editor’s Note: This post was written by Tara Ritter, Senior Program Associate with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and edited by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). IATP is a member organization of NSAC, and Tara serves as Co-Chair of NSAC’s Climate Change Subcommittee.

The current Administration has gone to great lengths to suppress climate change research, weaken key research institutions, and scrub mentions of climate change from government websites and documents. Despite these efforts, American farmers already know that the climate crisis is on our doorstep because they’ve been experiencing the negative impacts of it for years. Agriculture is among the hardest hit sectors by the climate crisis, and yet U.S. farm policy is largely devoid of climate considerations, and most climate change policy proposals insufficiently address agriculture.

As part of our efforts to arm farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to meet the challenges of climate change mitigation and adaptation head on, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) last week released a policy position paper: Agriculture and Climate Change: Policy Imperatives and Opportunities to Help Producers Meet the Challenge. This paper, which was co-authored by several members of NSAC’s Climate Change Subcommittee, reviews the latest science on climate change and agriculture and lays out policy recommendations to advance climate action that will help farmers meet the challenge and be part of the solution.

Impact of Climate Change on Farmers

Agriculture and Climate Change synthesizes the latest science on climate change to deliver concrete practice and policy recommendations to help farmers and rural communities lead the way on adaptation and mitigation solutions. There is no doubt that agriculture will face future challenges as a result of increasingly extreme fluctuations in average temperatures, rainfall patterns, and pest pressures.

In the American South, for example, farmers across the region have been experiencing record low temperatures that have led to extreme losses for South Carolina and Georgia peach farmers, Florida citrus growers, and Georgia’s Vidalia onion farmers. This increasing volatility will destabilize crop yields, contribute to livestock and farmworker stress, and increase economic uncertainty for farmers already facing the most challenging farm economy since the 1980s.

These disruptions, all of which farmers across the country are already grappling, will have disproportionately heavy impacts on low-income communities, farmers and farmworkers of color, and other historically underserved populations. Despite the disproportionate burden these communities bear, they have also historically been at the forefront of climate change advocacy and engagement – particularly our indigenous communities, farmers, and organizers.

Agricultures Impact on Climate

Agriculture is both impacted by climate change disruptions, and also contributes to them as a source of direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While agriculture is a relatively minor direct emitter of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions are a bigger problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agricultural soil management was the largest source of N2O emissions in the United States, accounting for nearly 74 percent of total U.S. N2O emissions in 2017. N2O is also released through fertilizer application and other practices that increase nitrogen availability in the soil.

Increases in total agricultural greenhouse emissions in the past 20 years can largely be attributed to the increasing use of liquid manure storage lagoons found on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  Manure lagoons emit substantial quantities of methane, and have a much larger GHG footprint than dry stacking, while aerobic composting or evenly distributed deposition on management intensive grazing pasture produce the lowest manure-related emissions. Agriculture also indirectly contributes to climate change as carbon stored in the soil is released. This happens when land is converted from forests, native prairie, and other grasslands to annual crop production with tillage and chemical inputs.

Where Does Ag Go From Here?

A fundamental rethinking of the structure of American agriculture – and the policies that created and sustain our current system – is needed if we hope to effectively address the climate crisis.

“U.S. agriculture has largely been designed to work with non-renewable fossil fuels, abundant freshwater reserves and a period of relative stability in the climate, all of which are now in question. The next generation of farmers and ranchers will need to switch to smarter agricultural systems…”

Agriculture and Climate Change: Policy Imperatives and Opportunities to Help Producers Meet the Challenge (2019)

Achieving an agricultural system that both adapts to and helps to mitigate climate change requires focusing on systems-based approaches to agricultural practices. While individual practices such as cover cropping or no-till can help keep carbon in the soil, integrated systems of practices based on agroecology have the greatest potential to mitigate agricultural GHG emissions and create a productive and resilient agriculture system.

Farmers’ management decisions aren’t just based on a single factor like GHG emissions, however. Farmers make planting and other production choices based on a complicated web of factors, influenced by intergenerational habits and community social norms. Corporate consolidation also factor into the choices that farmers make, primarily by restricting them – today, farmers are often confined to using certain seed varieties, chemicals, animal genetics, and management practices to meet the requirements of what the industry is selling and buying.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an October speech: “in America the big get bigger and the small go out.” This “get big or get out” sentiment is unfortunately built into current farm policy and has left many farmers struggling. The good news is that these attitudes and the policies that underpin them can be changed. We have a path forward if we are willing to follow it, and many concrete recommendations for how we can support farmers in implementing climate-smart practices are outlined in the NSAC report.

Federal Policy Climate Solutions

In Agriculture and Climate Change, NSAC takes a comprehensive look at the latest in agricultural and climate science, summarizing their analysis into 14 key research findings. Based on these findings, the paper puts forward eight policy priority areas that each include detailed recommendations, which NSAC hopes policymakers will utilize as they continue to develop and debate policies and programs to address the climate crisis.

NSAC’s overarching policy priorities on climate change are:

  1. Support producers to make U.S. agriculture climate-neutral
  2. Remove barriers and strengthen support for sustainable and organic production systems
  3. Support climate-friendly nutrient management to reduce agricultural nitrous oxide emissions
  4. Increase support for composting as a climate friendly alternative to landfill and manure lagoon disposal of organic “wastes”
  5. Strengthen protection of carbon sequestration potential of sensitive and marginal lands
  6. Support climate-friendly livestock production systems and end subsidies for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with their massive GHG and water pollution impacts
  7. Support on-farm energy conservation and low-carbon renewable energy production
  8. Fund public plant and animal breeding for climate-resilient agriculture

NSAC will deliver their policy position paper to Congress as a blueprint for policy action, and as a challenge to the Administration’s false narrative that farmers neither want nor need strong climate action. The findings of the paper will also be used to inform recommendations to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which undertook its first hearing on climate change and agriculture just this fall.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

6 responses to “A Call for Climate-Focused Agriculture Policy”

  1. Neil Havermale says:

    This policy paper has merit. I would also ask for 2019/2020 Ag Policy Debate to include the role of the private market to provide a market mechanism that will allow a carbon conservation and sequestration policy bridge between corporate enterprise requirements to present carbon neutrality to their stock-holders?

    One pathway to accelerate a national carbon sequestration policy would be to provide agricultural lands tenants and landlords special tax incentives as might regards income and long term capital gains benefits from certified soil carbon sequestration. Nationally upwards of 40 percent of harvested lands have some form of land lease upon it; some Garin Belt states this percentage may exceed 65 percent.

    Offering bold conservation benefits via these land contracts might create immediate incentives to improve the investment in long-term sustainable soil health as well as to provide new farm-gate income to literally hundreds of million of acres .

  2. jeffs@ncat.org says:

    And reform crop insurance to the whole farm perspective

  3. Elizabeth Pickard says:

    I do not see mention of a just and stable livelihood for farmers. I can’t see how the US would be able to transition to agroecological production system without securing the long-term financial viability of farmers and farmworkers.

    See Carlisle et al. “Transitioning to sustainable agriculture regrowing and sustaining an ecologically skilled workforce.” in Nov. 2019 Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.

    I’d be happy to provide other resources.

    Thank you.

  4. Reana Kovalcik says:

    Hi Elizabeth,
    While we do endeavor for all our publications to be comprehensive in approach, sometimes we cannot fully suss out each issue in each paper. If you did not find what you were looking for in the full report (please see linked report in this post), we’d encourage you to review our wealth of online resources on/for beginning farmers and ranchers, credit and loans, socially disadvantaged and historically underserved farmers and ranchers, and more.

  5. Doug Gurian-Sherman says:

    I appreciate the article, and the points it makes, as well as several of the comments. However, there is an important technical error. The article says that methane, which is one of the most important ag GHGs, is mainly from increases in CAFO liquid manure. Although manure is a source of methane, it is actually much less than from ruminant digestion (“cow burps”). And the biggest source of methane from ruminant digestion is cows grazing on pasture. Less comes from CAFO grain feeding. This has important implications for GHG accounting in ag, so it is not a trivial issue. CAFOs are terrible for may reasons, good cow pasture management has many benefits over CAFOs, and when soil carbon sequestration is taken into account, may even be much better for the climate overall than CAFOs. But for a number of reasons, it is important to get the science right.

  6. Reana Kovalcik says:

    Hi Doug,

    Your comment is partially right in that cow burps (enteric methane) are the major source of methane from agricultural systems – we address this issue in detail in the actual report, which we would encourage you to check out if you haven’t already. On page one, and in Figure 2 on page 8, we note that enteric methane from livestock at 32% is the number two contributor to GHGs behind only N20 from fertilized soil. GHG from manure storage facilities (which is both methane and N2O) ranks as third at 14%.

    A cow fed to maturity on pasture usually does release more methane than a cow in a feedlot mainly because the cow in the feedlot gains weight more quickly and is slaughtered sooner. But the total GHG footprint, using life cycle assessment, of feedlot cattle is much higher than cattle on management intensive grazing (MIG). Furthermore the vast majority of cows (94 to 97%) mature on feedlots, not on pasture, so the totals (even if just from enteric methane) are much lower from pasture than from feedlots. Lastly, improving forage quality in MIG has shown a 30% reduction in enteric methane (see pages 25-26 and page 38 of the report).

    We apologize for the unclear description in the blog, and will adjust the sentence in question to more specifically refer to *recent increases in methane production.