Top 5 priorities for USDA to support climate-smart farms and forests

“America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.”

— President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis

President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad directed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to seek public input on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s strategy for supporting climate-smart agriculture and forestry.

Here are the top five priorities that USDA should be focused on.

1. Create a roadmap for emerging carbon markets.

Interest in carbon markets for the agriculture and forestry sectors is growing rapidly, creating a wide range of opportunities for farmers and foresters. Current protocols are inconsistent in their approach to credit quantification, however, creating uncertainty and reluctance among farmers and foresters to participate.

USDA can help provide clarity and certainty around these emerging markets by establishing a framework for quality assurance. The agency can bring much-needed scientific rigor and transparency about how to measure the net climate impact of conservation practices.

USDA can also assist with project aggregation at scale. This has equity benefits as it allows smaller-scale farms and forests to participate in markets. It also has climate benefits by spreading out the risk of credits being sold for practices that can be undone, would have been done regardless of the credit or don’t deliver durable sequestration.

2. Leverage financial tools to deliver climate benefits.

USDA research shows that climate impacts will increase the cost of the federal crop insurance program, and the level of agricultural climate adaptation affects the program’s level of fiscal exposure.

USDA’s Risk Management Agency should seek to understand and reduce this risk by developing and piloting risk models that combine backward-looking production and risk data and forward-looking climate models to measure how effectively the models are pricing risk. RMA can also analyze and create incentives for farm-level management strategies that improve climate resilience — for example, through conservation practices like cover crops and conservation tillage.

USDA should also leverage its grantmaking and financing capacities to spur private investments in conservation through blended finance and risk mitigation tools. For example, increased collaboration with agricultural lenders — including agricultural banks and Farm Credit Associations — can accelerate lender engagement in supporting farmer adoption of climate-smart practices that ultimately reduce farmer and lender risk.

3. Improve research, data collection and data sharing.

USDA has an essential role to play in ensuring that federal investments in climate-smart agriculture and forestry are backed by strong science. It should use research from within and outside of USDA to build the evidence base around the contribution of agricultural and forestry practices to greenhouse gas emissions reductions and net carbon sequestration.

There is immense opportunity to invest in improving soil monitoring systems and technologies that both enhance the rigor of the soil carbon measurements and models that underlie public investments and private markets, and drive down future verification costs.

USDA should also work to connect the agency’s vast agricultural datasets with the extensive agricultural research community to help quickly and efficiently answer key research questions about the benefits of climate-smart practices.

4. Address systemic inequity and increase access to USDA programs.

USDA should address past injustices and implement its goals on equity and environmental justice. The department should actively seek out and internalize input from frontline and socially disadvantaged communities, and incorporate representatives from those communities in decision-making and USDA staff at all levels.

Scaling climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices and ensuring equitable access to conservation programs and resources should be USDA’s top climate priorities. Click To Tweet

USDA must also adapt its programs to address systemic inequity — for example, offering socially disadvantaged farmers preferred terms on federally administered loans, and ensuring that USDA funding programs provide targeted resources or set-asides to support socioeconomically vulnerable communities. Additional technical and legal assistance should be specifically tailored for socially disadvantaged and minority farmers and foresters to increase representation in the agriculture and forestry sectors.

5. Unleash the potential of forests to support healthy, prosperous communities.

America’s forests have great untapped potential to support healthy and prosperous communities by providing climate, water, wildlife and recreational benefits; by creating new jobs and economic opportunities in wood product industries; and by protecting communities from catastrophic fire.

USDA must play a leading role in maximizing the potential of forests to provide all of these ecosystem services and economic benefits. This includes increasing research and investments in climate-smart forest management practices that can avoid unnecessary emissions — including from catastrophic fire — and enhance carbon storage. It also includes restoring natural fire regimes grounded in science and public safety.

Scaling climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices and ensuring equitable access to conservation programs and resources should be USDA’s top climate priorities. Guided by science, the department can help harness the power of farms and forests to build climate resilience for all.

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