USDA sets new climate change goals, asks ag producers to join in effort

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 23, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented the details of his agency's new plan to partner with American farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners to reduce carbon emissions and bolster carbon sequestration to achieve a combined 120 million metric tons of CO2 mitigation per year by 2025.

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"American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations. That's why U.S. agricultural emissions are lower than the global average," Vilsack said in a release following the unveiling of the USDA plan at Michigan State University. "We can build on this success in a way that combats climate change and strengthens the American agriculture economy.”

USDA's strategic plan to combat climate change will rely on incentive-based, voluntary programs. Here are USDA's 10 “Building Blocks for Climate Change” and a few examples of the goals the agency pledged to accomplish:

  • Improve soil resilience and productivity through the promotion of no-till and conservation tillage, planting cover crops and forage and limiting soil compaction. Goal: increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.
  • Encourage the right type of fertilizer application, at the right time, in the right place and in the right volume to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and input costs for farmers. Goal: reduce fertilizer-related emissions from their 2000 levels by 10 percent by 2015.
  • Reduce methane emissions from cattle, dairy and swine operations through the use of anaerobic digesters, lagoon covers, composting and solid separators. Goal: increase the number of installed anaerobic digesters by 500 over the next 10years.
  • Use the Conservation Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through riparian buffers, tree planting and the conservation of wetlands and soils. Goal: enroll 400,000 acres of lands with high greenhouse gas benefits into the Conservation Reserve Program.
  • Prevent soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock. Goal: extend rotational grazing management practices onto 4 million acres.
  • Protect almost 1 million additional acres of working landscapes through the Forest Legacy and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation programs.
  • Increase forest resilience to fire, insects and disease and reforest areas irreversibly damaged by these disturbances. Goal: reforest over 400,000 acres of National Forest land over the next 10 years, restoring and strengthening the country's forest carbon stocks.
  • Offset fossil fuel emissions by storing carbon in wood building materials.
  • Reduce energy costs, stormwater runoff and urban heat island effects, while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal and property values through urban tree plantings. Goal: plant 100,000 new trees in urban areas by 2025.
  • Improve energy efficiency of utility equipment and appliances through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program; promote renewable energy opportunities through the Rural Energy for America Program; and improve farm energy efficiency through cost sharing and energy audits using the Rural Energy for America Program.

Vilsack stressed throughout his address that this initiative will not only support American producers as they work to reduce their operations' carbon footprint, it can also help farmers and ranchers improve yields, increase energy efficiency, and earn them revenue from clean energy production.

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The plan will rely on USDA programs funded by the 2014 farm bill, existing and future partnerships, as well as leveraged private funds to deliver on its promises by the 2025 deadline. USDA said the initiative will help conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks such as forests and soils, reduce emissions and increase renewable energy - all critical components to future agricultural and forest health, the agency said - by using outcome-based metrics to chart progress.

Last year, the USDA established seven regional climate hubs. These hubs will be among the main drivers behind the development and delivery of science-based information on climate change that farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can use to make informed decisions, according to the USDA.

“No one innovates better than the folks who live and work and raise their families in rural America,” Vilsack said at Michigan State. “Farmers, ranchers, and landowners and managers are in the climate solutions business. They are doing their part and the USDA is partnering with them.”

Rebecca Shaw, the associate vice president and senior lead scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, offered her support to USDA after Vilsack's announcement. “The USDA's focus on ‘cooperative conservation' is a huge step in the right direction,” she said in a release. “It recognizes that farmers aren't alone,” and that climate-smart food systems “will require unprecedented levels of collaboration between the public and private sectors.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, applauded the USDA's announcement as well, saying “it's important we begin to address the issues of climate change in a serious way.”

“Climate change has the potential to affect every person and every industry in America,” Stabenow continued. “However, no one feels this building pressure more than our farmers, ranchers, and foresters… (who) produce our food, timber and fiber.”

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