The climate deal reached last week by Senate Democrats could reduce the amount of greenhouse gases American farmers produce by expanding programs that help accumulate carbon in soil, fund climate-focused research and reduce the abundant methane emissions from cows.
The bill includes more than $20 billion to improve the agricultural sector’s impact on the environment, largely by expanding existing US Department of Agriculture programs that help farmers change to better practices. Farmers would be paid to improve the health of their soil, withstand extreme weather and protect their land if the bill is passed.
The agreement on climate and energy consumption of around 370 billion dollars will bring the country closer to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, according to new analyses. It is something many researchers say is important, and as President Joe Biden promised. Sen. Joe Manchin, DW. Va., a longtime holdout on climate legislation, supported measures that would benefit electric vehicles, renewable energy and climate-friendly agriculture. Agriculture accounts for 11% of the country’s climate-warming emissions.
The funding will expand programs favored by both environmental groups and the agricultural sector, said Ben Thomas, who focuses on agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“They’re voluntary, they’re incentive-based, they get results when it comes to implementing conservation practices on work sites,” Thomas said. “It’s great to see.”
Thomas said historically the agricultural sector has not aggressively tackled its contribution to climate change, but that reluctance has changed in recent years and more money will accelerate progress. There is a lot of potential, he said.
“It’s worth taking very, very seriously,” Thomas said.
Cows belch a huge amount of methane and agriculture is responsible for more than a third of human-caused methane emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is one way that people’s diets – if they contain a lot of meat or dairy – contribute to the build-up of greenhouse gases. The bill directs funds towards changing what the cows eat to reduce these emissions.
On farms, soil can contain or sequester carbon if it is left undisturbed and covered by a crop. Money from the bill would expand programs that help farmers turn the soil less, implement climate-friendly crop rotation practices and cover crops that are not harvested but improve soil health.
“The historic funding confirms the fact that these practices are important,” said Ranjani Prabhakar, an agriculture and climate policy specialist at the environmental group Earthjustice
For example, cover crops are only used by a fraction of farmers. If their use were to triple — from about 5% of cropland to 15% — it could remove the equivalent of 14 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, about the total annual emissions from New Hampshire, according to Kevin Karl, a flood and climate expert. researcher at Columbia University.
“The adoption rate is so low,” Karl said. “There is a lot of potential for improvement.”
Federal officials are already offering farmers help with a range of environmentally-focused issues, including irrigation and fertilizer use. One program helps fund conservation easements for farmland.
Dan Sheafer works in nitrogen research with the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association and runs a 20-acre farm. He plants cover crops and keeps soil disturbance to a minimum – practices that benefit soil health and reduce soil erosion. But he said that cover crops also have disadvantages, requiring farmers who want an environmental benefit to change their practices.
“There’s just more time involved growing cover crops,” he said.
The bill also contains money for research. While it is clear that managing soil properly can capture carbon, more needs to be known about important questions such as how long sequestered carbon remains in soil.
Kaiyu Guan, a professor focusing on climate and agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said some believe farmers are not paying enough attention to climate change.
“I think that farmers should not be blamed, they should actually be motivated,” Guan said. “Not only are they doing this to be part of the solution to help the climate, they are doing this to help their country.”
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