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The Potential―and Challenges―of Agriculture as a Climate Change Solution

There are proven and profitable agricultural practices that have the power to draw excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

But, before agriculture can be a climate change solution, it has to deal with its own greenhouse gas pollution.

Synthetic fertilizers and factory farms must be phased out, while regenerative organic practices that sequester carbon are ramped up.

There’s certainly a lot of potential, especially on grasslands where ruminant animals can forage for the entirety of their lives instead of being fattened on synthetic-fertilizer-grown grains in greenhouse-gas-polluting factory farm feedlots.

We can get grazing animals off grain and phase out of factory farms by increasing on-farm and farmer-owned processing capacity, so that farmers can act independently of the meat and grain monopolies.

But, it won’t be easy to steer clear of these multi-billion-dollar agribusinesses. They’re always one step ahead, working with their supporters in government on false solutions to perpetuate the industrial food system and avoid addressing the systemic causes of our climate crisis.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s idea of creating a Carbon Bank using Commodity Credit Corporation money to buy carbon credits from farmers so that polluters can avoid emissions reductions in a future Cap-and-Trade scheme, is one such irredeemable false solution.

The urgency of the climate crisis requires all-hands-on-deck action from every sector. We know from incontrovertible climate science that we have less than a decade to be on course to phase out greenhouse gas emissions. We must make both the greatest possible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the greatest possible increases in agricultural land’s capacity to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. 

Before the agriculture sector can start offsetting other industries it must figure out how to eliminate its own greenhouse gas pollution. 

Technically, on the whole, U.S. cropland is already a carbon sink, sequestering 10.3 MMT CO2 Eq. in 2017. U.S. grasslands, where cattle graze, are too, but just barely, sequestering 0.1 MMT CO2 Eq.

Does that mean U.S. farmers and ranchers should be able to sell 10.4 million tons of carbon credits to polluters? No and here’s why: 

Just because cropland is sequestering carbon, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a source of greenhouse gas pollution. 

The reality is U.S. cropland has been losing carbon. In 1990, U.S. cropland sequestered 40.9 MMT CO2 Eq. and it’s been steadily declining since then. So the 10.3 MMT CO2 Eq. sequestered in 2017 could also be seens as the emission of 30.6 MMT CO2 Eq.

Worse than that, agriculture is a much bigger greenhouse gas polluter than it is a greenhouse gas sink. Farming and ranching is emitting 542.1 MMT CO2 Eq. while sequestering just 10.4 MMT CO2 Eq.

Before agriculture can offer itself as a source of carbon credits, it needs to get its own emissions in check, reversing a very strong trend of plummeting soil carbon sequestration and rising greenhouse gas pollution.

Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers made from natural gas (266.4 MMT CO2 Eq.―the Environmental Protection Agency euphemistically calls synthetic fertilizer use Agricultural Soil Management) and the waste and emissions from the concentration of animals in factory farm feedlots (255.8 MMT CO2 Eq.―Enteric Fermentation and Manure Management in EPA’s parlance).

No agricultural fuel or energy source that involves the synthetic fertilizers or factory farms that are driving agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions can be accurately described as “climate-smart.” 

Using synthetic fertilizers to grow corn for ethanol has created countless environmental disasters, from dirty drinking water to the deadzone in the Gulf of Mexico―and it doesn’t even reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As Kelly Stone, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA, put it, “More corn ethanol doesn’t solve anyone’s problems but big business. Corn ethanol is bad for the climate, it’s bad for the environment and it’s bad for communities. The Renewable Fuel Standard has failed to deliver on the clean fuels it promised and needs to be reformed, but more corn ethanol is not the kind of reform needed.”

Like corn ethanol, biogas―what Vilsack’s USDA calls “renewable natural gas from livestock”―is another terrible false solution. 

Anaerobic biogas digesters are tanks or lagoons that create an oxygen-free environment where microbes feeding on liquified manure emit a mixture of gases, mostly methane and carbon dioxide, that the digester captures. Once it is refined, factory farm biogas is burned just like fossil natural gas.

Ostensibly, factory farm biogas is a means of reducing emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 90 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time period, but livestock manure isn’t a significant source of methane when it breaks down naturally on a pasture. It is the irresponsible factory farm mismanagement of livestock waste, specifically the anaerobic conditions of manure storage, that creates the methane problem.

Biogas doubles down on extreme pollution, making the unsustainable factory farm system’s massive amounts of animal waste―with all the water and air pollution they cause―necessary to supply the digesters.

Plus, livestock waste biogas only works for the biggest polluters. Smaller farms would never generate enough manure to make industrial scale digesters profitable. 

Agriculture is unlikely to be a source of alternative fuels at the scale fossil fuel consumers need to continue business as usual. We’d all drown in a toxic slurry of farm run-off if we tried!

The truth is, ethanol and biogas aren’t much better for the climate than fossil fuels. Increasing biofuels means increasing agriculture’s greenhouse gas pollution.

Emissions from the agricultural sector are currently about one-tenth of the U.S. total and come in nearly equal parts from the application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to cropland and the off-gassing from lagoons of liquified animal manure stored at concentrated animal feeding operations.

This problem is not going to be solved by increasing carbon sequestration where synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is applied or diverting animal waste to methane digesters.

It can only be solved by the reintegration of livestock and cropping, where the same land is used, in rotation, and via intercropping and silvopasture, to graze ruminants, grow feed for pasture-based poultry and hogs, and produce vegetables, nuts and fruit for people.

“Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm—which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer,” writes Wendell Berry in his 1996 book The Unsettling of America. “The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”

The reintegration of plants and animals would boost yields, in calories and nutrition per acre, while eliminating waste from the system. There’s no reason to use synthetic nitrogen fertilizer growing monocultures of animal feed, especially for ruminants. And, why turn crops or animal waste into energy when you can produce more food on less land―and achieve greater climate benefits―from integrating them into an efficient closed-loop system?

With existing Natural Resources Conservation Service programs, the USDA already has some of the tools needed to make this reintegration happen. Farms growing animal feed or energy crops could start their reintegration by enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program, which allows for livestock grazing, and the planting of trees and native grasses. When they have a farm system plan for integrating crops and non-ruminant animals into the rotation, they could graduate to the Conservation Stewardship Program, if they still needed subsidies as they transitioned. 

USDA should structure all programs so that federal farm support goes where it is needed most. Most federal farm support exacerbates economic inequity by funneling money to the richest landowners and the largest farms, because there are no caps on subsidies. By contrast, Natural Resources Conservation Service programs are targeted at family-scale farms. Conservation Stewardship Program, for instance, has been sensibly capped at $400,000 over 5 years and the Natural Resources Conservation Service can offer a minimum payment of $1,500 to encourage very small farms to participate.

Switching from cheap feedstocks to grass-fed beef should eventually eliminate the need for subsidies—if farmers and ranchers can get their livestock slaughtered locally rather than sending them to the monopoly meat producers’ feedlots and slaughterhouses.

USDA must launch a program to increase on-farm and farmer-owned cooperative livestock processing capacity. There are too few USDA inspected slaughterhouses even today, but that could be remedied by building on the existing infrastructure of state-inspected and custom meat processors and creating a special value-added producer grant program to build up the necessary infrastructure.

Yes, the food produced in this system would be more expensive than what we’re eating now, especially if we ensured that the people taking the millions of new jobs created were paid well enough to afford to eat it. But, the system would be so productive and create so much abundance that it would soon eliminate the need for subsidies. Even if we did have to subsidize some aspects of this new system, overall the government would see cost-savings in other areas―health care, water treatment and avoided climate disasters―significant enough to make up the difference.

It’s an inspiring vision, but it’s a long way off.

Agriculture is currently contributing to the climate crisis, and the farmers, ranchers, fishers, workers and rural communities that produce America’s food are enduring some of the worst impacts — suffering severe losses to their crops, livestock, land, fisheries and income from droughts, flooding, extreme heat, massive wildfires, seasonal disruptions, ocean acidification, and climate-related natural disasters such as hurricanes. These communities, the backbone of America’s food system, are experiencing interconnected climate and economic crises that are compounding the poverty and health emergencies of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns.

In 2019, more than 300 groups united behind a Green New Deal platform for food and farming described in this letter to Congress. This year, when the USDA asked for comments on climate-smart agriculture, the letter was updated and submitted. 

It included the following 8 ways the USDA could make the food and farming sector resilient to climate change, while working towards carbon-neutrality and eventually carbon draw-down:

  1. Empower farmers and ranchers to adopt diversified and ecologically regenerative organic and agroecological practices that can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in soil. 

USDA policies should shift our public investments away from subsidizing wealthy agribusiness along with commodities used mostly for fuel and livestock feed. This money should be redirected to support small and medium-sized farmers (especially beginning and historically disadvantaged farmers) who are sequestering carbon in the soil, reducing pollution, diversifying production, growing healthy food for communities, and paying food system workers a family-sustaining living wage. These investments will make communities across the United States far more economically stable, food-secure and resilient to climate upheaval.

By increasing investments in resources and training for farmers and workers, including research programs and technical assistance, USDA could unleash innovations in soil health and carbon sequestration.

Fully funding Natural Resources Conservation Service programs could be the first step in a rapid, just transition from chemical- and energy-intensive industrial monoculture production and over-tillage, to organic, diversified, regenerative farming and perennial agriculture practices that protect water quality, biodiversity and pollinator habitats. 

  1. Require reductions in greenhouse gas pollution from synthetic fertilizer use, factory farm waste, and soil carbon loss.

 All recipients of USDA support should be required to implement rigorous, cost-effective conservation, greenhouse gas reduction, and carbon sequestration practices — backed by significant investment in technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers implement these practices that reduce risks of crop failure, ensure long-term soil health, prevent water and air pollution and restore ecologically critical land.

USDA should restrict methane emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and reduce federal support (such as loans, research, public purchasing, insurance subsidies, and conservation payments) for industrial animal and monocrop agriculture. 

USDA should reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and the conversion of native habitats to cropland.

  1. Create jobs and spur new businesses to meet the growing demand for healthy, local, pasture-raised and organic foods, and to enhance local and regional food security and economic well-being.

USDA should invest in local and regional food security and community food sovereignty to ensure healthy food for all. When communities produce more of their own food, farming systems are more diversified and resilient in the face of economic and climate change.

USDA should expand existing programs to bolster local and regional food infrastructure — such as the Value-Added Producer Grant — to promote the shift from monocrop commodities and industrial livestock operations to diversified and ecologically regenerative farming oriented to local and regional markets.

  1. Guarantee fair, family-sustaining living wages and safe, humane working conditions for farmworkers, fishers, and other food industry workers.

USDA should support the workers’ rights movement to end the exploitation of food system workers. As the Food Chain Workers Alliance points out, the U.S. food system is rooted in a history of slavery and colonization, which continues to shape conditions today. Food system workers receive the lowest median wage and they are subject to some of the most dangerous working conditions. They are often the most vulnerable people working the most precarious jobs. These conditions leave food system workers vulnerable to wage theft, as well as racism, sexism, anti-immigrant discrimination and gender-based violence.

All food system workers, including farmworkers, should have full legal rights, regardless of citizenship status, including protection under wage, hour and workplace safety laws, as well as prohibitions against exploitation and child labor. All food system workers, including farmworkers,  should have a voice in food production, access to healthy food, and the freedom to organize and unionize without retaliation.

  1. Ensure fair prices and family-sustaining wages for the farmers, ranchers, fishers and workers who bring food to our tables.

USDA should guarantee fair prices for farmers, ranchers and fishers, and  family-sustaining living wages for workers. USDA can enable America’s family farmers to thrive while practicing or transitioning to organic, diversified, and regenerative agriculture — through policies ensuring parity pricing (fair minimum prices for farmers and fishers), supply management, and equitable access to land, credit and markets. These policies must also address economic and racial inequities endured by African American, Native American, Asian American, Pacific-Islander, Latinx and other historically disadvantaged farmers.

  1. Adopt healthy and climate-friendly food procurement policies.

USDA should reduce purchases of greenhouse-gas-intensive industrially-produced animal products — and promote sustainably produced, climate-friendly foods — in all public procurement programs, including school lunch programs. Research demonstrates that reducing industrial meat consumption and eating more vegetables significantly cuts greenhouse gas emissions, saves water, and reduces diet-related diseases, ensuring better long-term health outcomes and cost savings. Furthermore, purchasing food from well-managed, regenerative animal agriculture operations that use rotational grazing practices that enhance soil, protect biodiversity, store carbon and build resiliency is a key climate solution and offers a healthier alternative to animal products from factory farms.

  1. Enforce antitrust laws to reverse food sector consolidation and ensure fair markets.

Antitrust enforcement is needed to rigorously combat consolidation in the food and farming sector and reverse the rapid loss of farmers and deterioration of farmland. This includes ensuring that big chemical, seed, and meat companies are not the ones writing the rules for local rural communities, so that workers and farmers are able to thrive. By reversing consolidation, we can bolster rural economies’ food and farming diversity and resilience to climate change.

USDA should reissue and finalize the Farmer Fair Practice Rules to increase market transparency, establish fair contracts and protect the First Amendment rights of livestock and poultry growers.

  1. Work with leaders of historically disadvantaged, discriminated-against and dispossessed communities to prevent land loss and restore stolen land, and to establish a new cohort of young and beginning farmers, ranchers and land managers.

USDA policy must be community-driven, equitable, regionally specific and appropriate, and must promote the leadership of frontline communities disproportionately burdened by our climate crisis and by the unsustainable industrial food system. The food system’s profound ecological, social justice and economic problems are interconnected and cannot be addressed piecemeal.

USDA should support the #landback movement to put indigenous peoples back in the stewardship roles they once held. The climate benefits of indigenous decision-making power over native lands is well-established and should be an important piece of any U.S. climate action plan for the agriculture, land-use and forestry sectors.

USDA should support the movement for the US to pay reparations for the legacy of slavery. In addition, USDA must repair the impact of its own role in racial discrimination, including policies that allowed the number of Black farmers in America to be cut from the nearly 1 million who farmed in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 today.

The USDA should support community centered farmland ownership to address affordability and the unjust ownership concentration. With an estimated 400 million acres of U.S. farmland changing hands the questions of who will own and who will have tenure and hold equity are uncertain and urgent. The new generation of beginning farmers face significant barriers accessing affordable and secure land tenure with structural injustice, racism, and the commoditization of and extraction from land all magnifying the crisis.

USDA should work with stakeholders in all of the diverse communities involved in, and impacted by, farming and food production to ensure that support for climate-smart agriculture reaches those who need it most. Stakeholder organizations include, but are not limited to, the Agrarian Trust, the Black Church Food Security Network, the Black Family Land Trust, Black Urban Growers, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Family Agriculture Resource Management Services, Farmworker Justice, the Food Chain Workers Alliance, the HEAL Food Alliance, the Hmong American Farmers Association, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Indigenous Food & Agriculture Initiative, La Via Campesina, the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, the Rural Coalition, the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, the Traditional Native American Farmers Association, United Farmworkers of America, Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, and the Women, Food & Agriculture Network.

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.