The Biden-Harris Administration is prepared to act on climate and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is looking to the $30 billion in the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) as a source of funding for climate-smart agriculture.
This could be good. Organic agriculture and regenerative grazing are important climate solutions that could be rapidly scaled up if we were to fully fund Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs.
Unfortunately, Vilsack isn’t a fan of regenerative organic agriculture. He’d rather pay factory farms to run biogas digesters off lagoons of liquified animal waste or grow genetically engineered corn, drenched with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, for ethanol.
He wants to use USDA’s CCC money to establish a Carbon Bank where fossil fuel polluters could buy carbon credits to “offset”―instead of reducing―their emissions.
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 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.
Technically, on the whole, U.S. cropland is already a carbon sink, sequestering 10.3 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (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:
First, the reality is that 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 seen as the emission of 30.6 MMT CO2 Eq.
Second, just because cropland is sequestering carbon, doesn’t mean it isn’t also a source of greenhouse gas pollution.
Agriculture is a much bigger greenhouse gas polluter than it is a greenhouse gas sink.
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).
Altogether, farming and ranching is emitting 542.1 MMT CO2 Eq. while sequestering just 10.4 MMT CO2 Eq.
If agriculture is to become carbon neutral, 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 fertilizer isn’t used and cattle can be kept for the entirety of their lives instead of being sent to polluting factory farm feedlots.
But, this is going to mean reversing a very strong trend in U.S. agriculture of rising greenhouse gas pollution and plummeting soil carbon sequestration.
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 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.
The reintegration of crops and livestock 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―by integrating them into an efficient closed-loop system?
USDA already has 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 (CRP), which allows for livestock grazing, as well as 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 (CSP), if they still needed subsidies.
Subsidies shouldn’t be needed once the switch from cheap feedstocks to high-value grass-fed beef is complete, assuming farmers and ranchers can get their livestock butchered locally.
Right now, access to lucrative direct-to-consumer and farm-to-institution markets is blocked because there are too few USDA inspected slaughterhouses. The only option for most livestock producers is to send their animals to the monopoly meat companies’ feedlots and slaughterhouses.
USDA could help farmers and ranchers get their meat processed locally by building on the existing infrastructure of state-inspected and custom meat processors and creating a targeted Value-Added Producer Grant program to build up the necessary infrastructure of on-farm and farmer-owned cooperative butchers.
Cutting 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating agriculture’s greenhouse gas pollution won’t be easy, but it is possible―if false solutions don’t get in the way.
Tell USDA: Conservation, Not Carbon Offsets! Support Regenerative Organic Agriculture!