Senior political leaders at USDA, which has been accused of downplaying the department's own climate research under the Trump administration, insist that helping farmers address climate change is a priority for the department, asserting that sustainably increasing food production to feed a growing global population is a matter of “world security.”
In the keynote address at last week’s fourth annual Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Indianapolis, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Steve Censky repeatedly used the terms “climate” and “climate change.” He said USDA had a significant role to play in developing metrics to measure the impact of farmers and conservation practices on climate change and in carrying out and funding the research that will be needed to reduce emissions and help farmers adapt.
“Farmers, along with our livestock producers and others in the value chain will need to practice sustainable intensification, increasing yields, increasing production, while at the same time … conserving our natural resources and protecting the environment and enhancing sustainability,” he said.
He went on, “Food security is not only a national security issue, it is indeed a world security issue.”
Sustainable intensification is generally defined by scientists as increasing farm yields without converting additional land into crops or having an adverse environmental impact on existing croplands, including by increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Censky also said USDA “recognizes we play a key role in helping farmers adapt to a changing climate. And we play a key role in helping farmers to become more resilient and implement climate smarter agriculture practices.”
He told reporters after the speech that USDA-funded conservation and extension programs will be critical to getting farmers to adopt new practices and technologies.
It's not clear whether or to what extent USDA might shift or increase climate-related research spending, but Censky’s speech represented an unusually blunt assessment of the importance of climate change to agriculture and follows criticism of the department for reducing press releases about the department’s internal research.
In September, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and other Senate Democrats released a list of more than 1,400 climate change studies authored by USDA researchers but largely unpublicized. "The studies show climate change is affecting agricultural productivity, disrupting how food is grown, and increasing risks to rural communities," the report said.
Also this year, a leading USDA researcher on climate change, Lewis Ziska, left the department, citing in part a dispute with managers over a 2018 paper he co-authored predicting that higher carbon dioxide levels would result in lower levels of micronutrients in rice.
Censky is “steering USDA towards a place where science-based decisions can be made there,” said Bruce Knight, a former undersecretary for USDA’s conservation programs in the George W. Bush administration.
Knight now operates a consulting firm and is helping develop the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, a national effort to develop a nationwide credit trading system for farm practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve water quality.
The Indianapolis summit where Censky spoke drew a record attendance of more than 600 people, including representatives of a variety of food and agriculture companies representing various segments of the supply chain.
Knight said there has been a groundswell of corporate interest in voluntary methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions since President Donald Trump announced he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.
Both Censky and Scott Hutchins, USDA's deputy undersecretary for research, education and economics, have addressed the climate issue before the Senate Agriculture Committee. Hutchins told Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, in 2018 that he accepted a “large body of work” showing human activity was accelerating climate change.
After Censky's speech last Thursday, Agri-Pulse submitted a series of questions about USDA’s research plans to Hutchins. Responding in an email, Hutchins said the core focus on USDA’s internal research and funding of outside research “is on finding data-driven solutions around soil health, regenerative agriculture, invasive species, food animal biosecurity, digital agriculture, automation and artificial intelligence." He said USDA research program managers are now "assessing how to ensure we have no gaps in our research and how to accelerate for faster and meaningful results.”
He said improving “sustainability metrics, data, and reporting for our research in this area. It’s a priority for our entire mission area for the coming fiscal year and years to come.”
Bill Hohenstein, who directs USDA’s Office of Energy and Environmental Policy, said the department is currently working to update a computer modeling tool that provides estimates of how much various farming and conservation practices will have on emissions of the three greenhouse gases connected to agriculture, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.
The tool, known by the acronym COMET, was developed by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service in partnership with Colorado State University. The tool has been made available to Stonyfield Farm Inc. and other companies that are working with suppliers to reduce their carbon footprints.
But the tool is out of date when it comes to the development of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, said Hohenstein, a career employee at USDA who once served as the U.S. representative to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Those practices have a lot of promise to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and increase production,” he said. Applying nitrogen fertilizer to fields releases nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.
USDA has a critical role to play in terms of the basic research that is needed to reliably estimate and track the impact of farming practices and technology on carbon emissions and water quality, said Debbie Reed, executive director of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, which aims to enroll millions of acres of farm and rangeland in a credit trading program.The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) recently announced a $10.3 million award to build out the research arm of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium.
“It would be great if we had more soil carbon information and better soil carbon information across the country,” she said. In many instances, the existing data is outdated and doesn’t reflect the actual variations in soil types.
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