Fighting climate change from farm fields to Capitol Hill

With the Iowa caucuses approaching Feb. 3, contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination have suggested ways to help America’s farmers to rebound from a near-disastrous 2019 growing season that highlighted the agriculture sector’s unique vulnerability to climate change impacts. Spring floods and heavy rains combined with an early October freeze for a one-two punch that saw crops go in the ground weeks late and hundreds of bushels freezing on their stalks. The resulting yield of 13.7 billion bushels was a five-year low, and a drop of 700,000 bushels from 2018.

Looking ahead, we can expect these reductions in agriculture production to continue. Higher temperatures increase the risk of drought (occurrences, intensity, and duration), stressing plants and depressing yields. Other major climate threats to the U.S. agriculture sector include future water stress, threats to pollinators, wildfire, and reduced labor productivity because of extreme heat.

At the same time, agriculture contributes about 9 percent of the country’s emissions. Policymakers must now consider how they can best help farmers deal with the dual challenges of decarbonizing and improving resilience.

C2ES’s recent Getting to Zero report recommends policies that can help farmers leverage practices that can not only limit their own emissions footprint and boost resilience, but also potentially lower costs and improve yields. We include policies that can encourage farmers to adopt practices that enhance carbon storage in soil, such as rotational grazing or the use of cover or perennial crops. In addition to absorbing carbon dioxide emissions, these practices reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer, which emits nitrous oxide, with a global warming potential hundreds of times higher than carbon dioxide. These farming practices can also reduce erosion, retain water, and enhance nutrient cycling, thus improving yield and crop resilience.

The democratic field has aligned around the need to better engage the agricultural sector on developing climate solutions. Similarly, multiple candidates have proposed expanding conservation programs that pay farmers to adopt certain practices that enhance soil carbon sequestration, often with resilience co-benefits, a potentially critical—and scalable—land use strategy outlined in Getting to Zero.

While conservation incentives are important, they must be part of a broader decarbonization effort, including an economy-wide carbon pricing program. Such a program should make carbon-sequestering growing practices available as offsets that can either be traded or become a vehicle for investment of carbon revenues. In addition, Congress should approve funding to research and refine precision agriculture equipment and technology that can monitor moisture, weeds, and pests to better inform application of water, pesticides, and fertilizer.

Farmers are looking to rebound from a tough year in 2019, and increasing the potential of farmland as a carbon sink can help them do exactly that, while also hedging against future risk. The right policy incentives can work hand-in-hand with more sustainable growing and land management practices to mitigate the emissions that contribute to crop-crushing weather disasters and make America’s farms more productive and prosperous.

As Getting to Zero explains, a sustainable transition to a carbon neutral economy has to align and leverage economic incentives with the imperative to adopt emissions-free practices. The economic and resilience benefits of ambitious climate policies in the agricultural sector—paired with the rare political consensus around helping farmers—provide a clear model for decarbonizing the rest of the economy.