Climate Change and Agriculture: A Problem Too Hot (and Cold, and Wet, and Dry) to Ignore

By Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

Every day, farmers and ranchers across the country battle against the realities of climate change. Southern farmers contend with severe floods. Extreme heat and drought plagues farmers on both coasts. Farmers and ranchers from all regions have faced damage to their crops and animals due to rapidly changing disease and pest patterns.

While the impacts of climate change on America’s farmers and ranchers have been significant, and in some cases devastating, it would be wrong to see these hardworking men and women simply as victims. Farmers and ranchers have enormous opportunity to mitigate and even reverse the effects of climate change through conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – but they can’t do it alone.


The next several months offer a unique window of opportunity to make real, measurable progress in the fight against climate change and the degradation of America’s farmlands and natural resources. This fall America will welcome in our 45th President, and with that person will also come new leadership at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, Congress will begin conversations around the 2018 Farm Bill, our largest and most comprehensive piece of food and agriculture legislation. The confluence of these events makes the coming year an especially important time for action on sustainable agriculture and climate change.

Farmers and ranchers will need the new Administration to come together with Congress and stand up for sustainable agriculture and the future of farming. And, though time is short, there are also still key opportunities for this Administration to act upon its commitment to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Conservation on Working Lands

USDA’s working lands conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), provide some of the agency’s best opportunities to address climate change mitigation.

CSP is not only USDA’s largest working lands program, it is also unique amongst agricultural conservation programs in that it rewards producers on the basis of their current and expected conservation outcomes. Currently, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is in the process of finalizing major changes to the program, which presents a key opportunity to ensure that participants are appropriately incentivized for high-level enhancements, such as resource-conserving crop rotations, integrated pest management, and management-intensive rotational grazing. In a recent article published in conjunction with the agriculture news media site, Agri-Pulse, we explore more in depth some key questions to consider as this important program reinvention takes place.

NRCS has also taken important first steps to link USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry to specific conservation practices. This spring, NRCS announced the targeted allocation of $72.3 million for climate-beneficial conservation practices to be rolled out through EQIP. Basing the available practices on the Climate Smart building blocks is a good start, however, there is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of how the practices are promoted and which receive priority support.

U.S. Involvement in Global Soil Health Initiatives

One building block that is particularly promising and deserving of emphasis is that of Soil Health; USDA estimates that soil health practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 18 metric tons by 2025. Soil health and the role of farmers and ranchers in leading climate change mitigation efforts is a topic that goes beyond national boundaries, and the United States has a critical role to play.

At last year’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference, the French Agriculture Ministry established the 4 per 1,000 Initiative, a soil carbon sequestration (SCS) effort aimed at achieving an annual .4 percent increase in SCS globally. The initiative provides a framework through which private and public actors can come together and commit to demonstrating that agriculture, and agricultural soils in particular, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned. While the French Ministry is working closely with USDA on the initiative, the question remains if and when the United States will join the 32 countries that are already signed on to the global pact.

President Obama did announce his intent to release, before he leaves office, a mid-century, long-term low greenhouse emission strategy, pursuant to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. We’ll also be watching closely as the Administration pulls together this report, looking for serious acknowledgement of the enormous potential that soil health and carbon sequestration initiatives can play in our overall climate change mitigation strategy.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), a Fair Farms partner, is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities. As climate change mitigation policies, programs, and initiatives continue to develop, we provide ongoing analysis and updates. 


Ferd Hoefner, NSAC