3 must-haves for USDA to cut agriculture’s environmental footprint in half

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new Agriculture Innovation Agenda sets a promising and necessary goal: Cut the environmental footprint of U.S. agriculture in half by 2050. The agency aims to achieve this in part through lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and increased soil health.

Meeting this objective will not only benefit the people who rely on American farmers and the natural resources they steward. It will also make agriculture part of the solution and build climate resilience on the front lines – America’s farms.

Farmers are coming off one of the most difficult growing seasons on record, and more extreme and variable weather is becoming the norm. Boosting climate resilience to reduce production risk has never been more essential.

But for USDA to effectively deliver on this goal, it will need to arm itself – and farmers – with robust data, science and economics. Here are three ways that USDA can boost its climate roadmap to put U.S. agriculture on the path to success.

1. Use data to move the needle

USDA already closely tracks and reports yield data, but it has historically kept this data and other data about agricultural conservation practices in siloes. In response to a directive in the 2018 farm bill, USDA issued a report in January about the feasibility of making this data available while protecting farmer privacy.

The agency is now taking an important next step – committing to review and benchmark data about the adoption of agricultural conservation practices that can improve soil health, water quality and other environmental outcomes.

Compiling these data will allow USDA, farm organizations and researchers to track the adoption of practices, make more informed decisions, measure progress at scale, and understand critical links between agricultural conservation practices, climate resilience and risk mitigation.

Insights from these data can help producers manage risk and variability to better adapt to a changing climate and maintain strong and profitable farm operations long into the future. By acting swiftly on its commitment, USDA can make the promise of these data a reality.

2. Invest in science and economics

USDA’s researchers do the critical work of turning data into meaningful insights for farmer decision-making. Strong, sufficiently funded research units are key to the successful implementation of the agency’s Agriculture Innovation Agenda. USDA must double down on scientific and economic staffing levels and overall capacity if it is to truly serve farmers.

Scientific expertise is essential for defining agriculture’s environmental footprint, interpreting what a 50% reduction means for improved water quality and climate resilience, and analyzing whether conservation practices are driving progress toward the 50% overall reduction and 30% reduction in nutrient runoff.

Working lands are undoubtedly part of the climate solution. Analysis and modeling, based on the best available science and new data collection, will be necessary to know whether that potential is being met. Three ways that USDA can boost its climate roadmap to put U.S. agriculture on the path to success. Click To Tweet

3. Assess both environmental and economic outcomes

USDA can catalyze agricultural conservation by prioritizing data analysis that evaluates the relationship between practice adoption, environmental outcomes, and economic impacts on the farm and beyond. For example, improving the science supporting the link between healthy soils and reduced crop yield risk could then be integrated into farmer risk management tools such as federal crop insurance.

USDA has a critical role to play in supporting farmers as they confront a changing climate, and efforts to date have not matched the scale of the challenge facing America’s farmers. This is a critical moment for USDA to spur faster adoption of agricultural conservation practices that reduce climate risks to food production.

With its 50% environmental footprint reduction goal, USDA has a real opportunity to ensure agriculture has a seat at the table for developing and adopting climate solutions. Going all-in on data, science and economics will maximize the opportunity for USDA and all U.S. farmers to be more resilient in the face of climate change.

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