NSAC's Blog

Policy Solutions for Healthy Soils

April 20, 2016

Farmer showing off healthy soil from cover-cropped acres. Photo credit: USDA

Farmer showing off healthy soil from cover-cropped acres. Photo credit: USDA

This is the second blog in a two-part series on the integral role of agriculture and soil health in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. See yesterday’s guest post from Daniel Kane on the recently published findings on the important role that soils play in combatting climate change.

Years of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have meant more farmers and ranchers are facing devastating impacts from climate change than ever – from severe floods and extreme drought, to increased pressures from changing disease and pest patterns. Given that land use (including agricultural management and land cover change) accounts for nearly a quarter of human GHG emissions, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), farmers have an important role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Final Obama Administration Opportunities

As we have previously reported, 2016 presents a final window of opportunity for the Administration to act upon its commitment to climate change by embracing critical initiatives to support agricultural adaptation and mitigation.

Recently, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) laid out the top 10 opportunities for the Administration to address the linkage between climate change and agriculture. These proposed actions require no new legislative authority, and we urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to partner with the nation’s farmers and ranchers in creating a lasting, positive climate legacy.

Supporting Cropland and Pasture Mitigation Efforts

Crop and livestock producers play a central role in climate mitigation efforts, and there are a number of opportunities for increased support of these producers.

For crop producers, USDA has the opportunity to increase support for Resource-Conserving Crop Rotations within the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). These conservation practices are among the most effective systems to improve soil’s ability to sequester carbon and enhance soil fertility with less need for chemical fertilizers. In order to support further adoption of this critical practice, we strongly encourage NRCS to increase the supplemental payment rate from $15 to $20 an acre, which would more accurately reward producers for their investments and contributions to mitigating climate change.

NRCS also recently introduced a soil health rotation enhancement, providing support for producers who add diversity to their cropping systems, maintain residue through the year, sustain a living root, and minimize soil disturbance. These systems greatly enhance the soil’s ability to act as a storehouse for carbon as producers increase the quantity and quality of plant biomass they produce, while simultaneously reducing how much CO2 is lost from the soil. To date, however, only one state has utilized the enhancement opportunity. NRCS should increasingly promote this enhancement, highlighting both its environmental and financial benefits.

On the livestock production side, NRCS should encourage management intensive grazing, a practice wherein producers frequently move cattle to new pasture, which prevents overgrazing and allows pasture plants to have continuously high biomass. Also, this kind of production generally does not require tillage, so soil remains undisturbed while carbon remains secured. Management intensive grazing, as well as transition to organic grazing systems, have been CSP enhancements in the past, and NRCS should continue to promote them during the program refresh currently underway.

Additionally, for both livestock as well as crop producers, USDA should consider the enormous climate benefits of organic agriculture and appropriately incentivize the transition to organic production. Organic farming and ranching practices can help enhance resilience to climate change while also reducing reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions through the elimination of fossil fuel-based synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Increased support for producers transitioning to organic can be achieved by raising the scores for organic transition enhancements in CSP, as well as by improving the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative for transitioning producers. 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. 

We appreciate that NRCS is considering an organic “bundle” of enhancements as part of the upcoming CSP overhaul, and we hope they will also consider additional opportunities to recognize bundles of climate-beneficial enhancements.

House Appropriators Slash Climate Toolbox

Despite a clear need for financial and technical support for producers who adopt climate beneficial practices, the programs that support these practices (including the CSP and EQIP) remain under attack through the annual appropriations process. Just yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee passed the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s spending bill for fiscal year (FY) 2017 out of committee, which included proposed cuts to CSP and EQIP. The bill reduces 2017 enrollment for CSP by 20 percent, from 10 million to 8 million acres, reducing the farm bill conservation baseline for the program by over $300 million, and cuts EQIP by $232 million, or nearly 20 percent.

CSP and EQIP provide support for producers to implement and expand soil health practices such as conservation crop rotations, rotation grazing, and nutrient management, which are critical within efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate. Meanwhile, the pressures producers face from climate instability will continue to grow. It is irresponsible for House appropriators to cut the very programs that support climate change adaptation and mitigation.

We expect the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to debate and vote on its version of the bill later this month, and we hope Senate Appropriators will reject these reckless cuts to mandatory conservation funding that threaten climate change mitigation and agricultural resilience.

Global Leaders Strive for Climate-Smart Soils

Not only is the time ripe for the Administration and Congress to take action on climate change and agriculture, but this important issue is also being seriously debated and considered on the global scale. Building healthy soils is an effective large-scale, low-cost strategy to combat climate change. Implementation will require coordination and commitments from countries around the world in order to develop policies that support agricultural producers in adopting climate-smart practices on individual farms.

At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP 21), the French Agriculture Ministry proposed the “0.4 Percent Initiative,” recognizing that even a small increase in the percentage of soil carbon sequestration, when applied across lands at a global scale, will effectively stabilize GHG levels to 450 parts per million. The initiative provides an opportunity for countries to sign on and develop national plans to build climate-smart soil, and it supports collaborative research to develop universal soil carbon measurement tools. Additionally, there is an option for smaller farmer groups and coalitions to register with individual plans for increasing climate-smart soil practices.

As a next step, the Fresh Agriculture Ministry will develop a web-based forum where farmer groups and organizations that sign can share their experiences, plans and strategies, and to tap into a global network of organizations committed to a shared goal. This forum will help identify and promote agricultural practices at the local level, which remains the foremost implementation challenge: billions of farmers must incorporate climate-smart soil practices onto their fields in order for initiative to become effective. The French Ministry is working closely with the United States Department of Agriculture to ensure that their goals on climate-smart soils remain aligned, though as of yet there is no official commitment.

Stay tuned for additional updates on what upcoming policy decisions and administrative actions mean for this pressing linkage between climate change and agriculture.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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