Driving climate-smart agriculture with data

This blog reflects comments made by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions on how the Department of Agriculture (USDA) can incentivize climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices across the agency’s programs.

In Washington and across the country, there’s been excited discussion recently about the possibility for farmers, ranchers and foresters to “grow carbon” as a strategy to address climate change. The idea is that, via improved management practices, producers can sequester valuable carbon in their soils and plant biomass, thus expanding our natural carbon sink. Many diverging avenues have been promoted to enable this goal. These include establishing voluntary carbon markets, creating a carbon bank via USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation or enhancing USDA’s conservation programs. Whatever approach wins out, acquiring better data on how plants and soils store carbon and determining how producers can make it happen more efficiently are vital first steps.

We already know that plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and soils are our largest terrestrial carbon sink. At a basic level, then, sequestering carbon via plants and soils is promising. But there is still much we don’t know about how carbon can be sequestered in working lands across the United States. Which regions and soil types have the greatest sequestration potential? Which management practices (cover crops, managed grazing, etc.) most effectively and durably sequester carbon? How does carbon sequestration potential differ on, say, a soybean farm versus an apple orchard? And – perhaps most importantly – once carbon is sequestered, how long can it actually be stored, taking into account the risk that a management practice may be abandoned, working land may be converted to other uses, and natural disasters may undo potential carbon benefits?

Without addressing these questions, USDA and others risk promoting practices that only have temporary benefits or that have high risk of reversal. Already in the climate-smart agriculture space, there is a disconnect between what science suggests has lasting carbon benefits and what incentivization programs, such as voluntary carbon markets, promote. Take, for example, no-till agriculture. Farmers who reduce or stop tilling their soil are already eligible for performance-based payments via multiple voluntary carbon markets. While no-till has several environmental benefits, opinion varies on its carbon benefits. Proponents say untilled soils store more carbon than their conventionally tilled counterparts. Some scientific studies, though, have shown no-till merely changes the depth at which soil carbon is present, or that it only offers carbon storage benefits in certain climates and soil types. This disconnect, coupled with the likelihood that no-till fields will need to be tilled at some point in the future, raises concerns that producers may be driven to adopt practices that can’t sequester carbon long-term.

In this context, USDA has a crucial role to play in investigating and establishing credibility for the climate benefits of various management practices over production life cycles. Such research should be conducted on diverse soil types, commodities, and cropping systems to account for the multitude of producer types across the country. Based on the results of this research, USDA should recommend best management practices with the highest emissions reduction or sequestration ability over the long term. These recommendations would be reflected in USDA’s own Conservation Practice standards, incentivized in its conservation programs, and be available for use in third-party carbon markets to drive widespread adoption. USDA can further support carbon markets by surveying existing market approaches, closing markets’ knowledge gaps with research, and recommending best practice methodologies for carbon accounting and verification. These steps can standardize practices across marketplaces and help carbon credit buyers determine which credits are high-quality.

Myriad challenges come with measuring the carbon benefits of agriculture practices. Carbon levels in soils can differ not only region-by-region, but even field-by-field in a given farm, depending on soil moisture, management factors, etc. Soil samples would need to be taken at a massive scale to illuminate these granular differences, but sampling is both time consuming and costly. USDA should expand its soil sampling as much as feasible, while also investing in technologies, such as remote sensing, that measure soil carbon across landscapes for more efficient data collection. As USDA recently acknowledged in its climate-smart agriculture and forestry progress report, this dual approach is essential, since new technologies and models must be based on real soil carbon data to ensure accurate accounting. USDA should also crowdsource data from other parties to aggregate in detailed, public databases, for instance by working with private sector and nonprofit partners already collecting carbon data from farms and ranches.

Engaging the private sector, nonprofits, academics and other stakeholders will be vital for USDA to successfully advance new tools, growing methods and technologies through the RD&D cycle and into the marketplace. Land-grant universities will be key partners both in conducting research and disseminating best practices to producers via their extension services. Farmer-to-farmer exchanges and demonstration sites are also crucial to spread success stories that will encourage widespread adoption of climate-smart practices. Historically underserved producers must be able to equally access and benefit from research results; collaborations with historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, community-based organizations, and other minority-serving institutions can help USDA implement outreach programs equitably.

The need for urgent action on climate can seem at odds with the slow process of vetting climate-smart practices before incentivizing their adoption. But without the proper data to develop a long-term view on the climate impacts of new practices, we risk investing in some interventions that don’t have lasting benefits. Climate-smart agriculture will need to take on a learn-as-we-go approach. We can start by incentivizing strategies whose benefits are already scientifically agreed upon and add new practices to our tool kit as we better understand their potential. This research-based strategy ensures USDA’s efforts are grounded in science and allows all stakeholders to be confident that the time and money spent on climate-smart agriculture will pay off in the long run.