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Don't Wait 'Til the Cows Come Home: State Actions on Climate-Neutral Agriculture

Top view of a tractor harvesting crops in a field.

In every state, the real­i­ties of cli­mate change are becom­ing ever more vis­i­ble — more fre­quent floods, droughts, wild­fires, heat waves, and more. Agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­ers are fac­ing some of the most imme­di­ate impacts of these weath­er events. Increased pests and more chal­leng­ing work­ing con­di­tions fur­ther affect their abil­i­ty to grow plants and raise animals.

For­tu­nate­ly, many of the agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices that build resilience also help mit­i­gate cli­mate change. How­ev­er, these cli­mate-friend­ly prac­tices are employed on only a tiny frac­tion of US agri­cul­tur­al land. Pol­i­cy change will be crit­i­cal to accel­er­at­ing their adop­tion. Our new book, Farm­ing for Our Future: The Sci­ence, Law, and Pol­i­cy of Cli­mate-Neu­tral Agri­cul­ture, aims to pro­vide the foun­da­tion that fed­er­al and state pol­i­cy­mak­ers need for mak­ing sound deci­sions as they face these threats.

One impor­tant find­ing of the book is that state and fed­er­al pol­i­cy mak­ers can — and should — be ambi­tious on agri­cul­ture as they estab­lish cli­mate plans. The data are clear that it is pos­si­ble to elim­i­nate net agri­cul­tur­al emis­sions by both sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions and increas­ing car­bon seques­tra­tion in plants and soils. Farm­ers and ranch­ers can reduce net green­house gas emis­sions through improved graz­ing and ani­mal feed­ing prac­tices and bet­ter manure, irri­ga­tion, crop, and soil man­age­ment. As we explain in our book, the adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion ben­e­fits of cov­er crops, rota­tion­al graz­ing, and buffer strips, for exam­ple, have been wide­ly demon­strat­ed. Grow­ing more peren­ni­al crops is an espe­cial­ly pow­er­ful tool to build resilience and sequester car­bon. Oth­er prac­tices, such as feed addi­tives that can reduce enteric methane emis­sions and low-cost drip irri­ga­tion, show promise and deserve more research and development.

State pol­i­cy­mak­ers should also under­stand the source of agriculture’s con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate change. Most dis­cus­sion of cli­mate change focus­es on the car­bon diox­ide emit­ted by the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels. Agriculture’s con­tri­bu­tions, by con­trast, come large­ly from methane, a pow­er­ful green­house gas about 85 times more potent than car­bon diox­ide in glob­al warm­ing (over 20 years), gen­er­at­ed by decom­po­si­tion of manure and in the guts of cows and sheep whose rumi­nant diges­tion sys­tems release large amounts of methane. Agriculture’s oth­er main green­house gas is nitrous oxide, large­ly the result of excess nitro­gen fer­til­iz­er that is con­vert­ed by soil microbes into this green­house gas, almost 300 times more potent than car­bon dioxide.

A bet­ter under­stand­ing of the sig­nif­i­cance of agri­cul­ture GHG emis­sions also makes clear that states and the coun­try as a whole can­not reach their cli­mate goals with­out address­ing the agri­cul­ture sec­tor. The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s (EPA) green­house gas inven­to­ry esti­mates that agri­cul­ture is respon­si­ble for about 10% of the country’s total GHG emis­sions, although that num­ber ris­es to 30% in sev­er­al states (Ida­ho, Iowa, Nebras­ka, South Dako­ta) and over 20% in many oth­ers. This per­cent­age fig­ure, how­ev­er, is mis­lead­ing; the true impact of agri­cul­ture is far greater. EPA’s inven­to­ry places many agri­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties, such as on-farm ener­gy usage, annu­al land use con­ver­sion, and the pro­duc­tion of agri­cul­tur­al inputs, in oth­er inven­to­ry sec­tors; this dis­ag­gre­ga­tion effec­tive­ly hides the full cli­mate impact of agri­cul­ture. Nor does it include the con­tin­u­ing lost car­bon seques­tra­tion poten­tial of pri­or land con­ver­sion. And final­ly, recent research indi­cates that EPA’s mod­els are often over­ly con­ser­v­a­tive when com­pared to actu­al mea­sure­ments and under­val­ue methane’s near-term impact. Account­ing for all these adjust­ments brings the total GHG emis­sions attrib­ut­able to the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor to about one-third of all U.S. emissions.

States have numer­ous pol­i­cy levers to sup­port cli­mate-friend­ly agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices. For exam­ple, between 2017 and 2021, California’s Healthy Soils Pro­gram pro­vid­ed over $42 mil­lion in fund­ing for 640 cli­mate-friend­ly agri­cul­tur­al projects cov­er­ing 56,000 acres. The program’s 2021 fund­ing cycle was increased to $75 mil­lion. Many states also have exist­ing pro­grams that sub­si­dize var­i­ous prac­tices and sup­port research that can be bet­ter tai­lored to focus on cli­mate resilience and mit­i­ga­tion. State envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions, which large­ly serve as reg­u­la­to­ry carve-outs for agri­cul­ture at present, can be reformed. In addi­tion, gov­ern­ments at all lev­els can use their enor­mous pro­cure­ment pow­er to sup­port the pro­duc­tion of food with low-to-no net emis­sions. Since a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of large-scale oper­a­tions pro­duce an immense share of the sector’s emis­sions, reform­ing the oper­a­tions of these facil­i­ties would have a huge cli­mate change impact. At the same time, states must be wary of polit­i­cal­ly attrac­tive bio­fu­el and bioen­er­gy pro­grams that are in fact cli­mat­i­cal­ly counter-productive.

Pub­lic sup­port for organ­ic agri­cul­ture came almost entire­ly from states and state-lev­el insti­tu­tions dur­ing the sector’s ear­ly years. Only after organ­ic farm­ing had become more polit­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant did fed­er­al farm pol­i­cy begin to pro­vide real sup­port for organ­ic agri­cul­ture through its research, con­ser­va­tion, and sub­sidy pro­grams. States have a sim­i­lar oppor­tu­ni­ty to kick­start cli­mate-neu­tral agri­cul­ture. We have lit­tle time to lose.