How the climate deal would help farmers help the environment

How the climate deal would help farmers help the environment

Climate-friendly farming (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Climate-friendly farming (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The climate deal reached by Senate Democrats last week could reduce the amount of greenhouse gases American farmers produce by expanding programs that help sequester carbon in the soil, fund climate-focused research and reduce the abundant methane emissions of to lower cows.

The bill earmarks more than $20 billion to improve the agricultural sector’s environmental impact, primarily by expanding existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that help farmers transition to better practices. Farmers would be paid to improve the health of their soil, withstand extreme weather, and protect their land if the law passes.

The roughly $370 billion climate and energy deal would bring the country closer to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, according to new analysis. That’s something many scientists think is important, and that’s what President Joe Biden has promised. Senator Joe Manchin, DW. Va., a longtime climate change resister, advocated measures that would benefit electric vehicles, renewable energy and climate-friendly agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for 11% of the country’s climate-warming emissions.

The funding would 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 in terms of implementing conservation practices on work sites,” Thomas said. “It’s great to see.”

Thomas said historically the agricultural sector has not aggressively addressed its contribution to climate change, but hesitation has shifted 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 burp an enormous amount of methane, and agriculture is responsible for more than a third of man-made methane emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. In this way, people’s diets – when they contain a lot of meat or dairy products – contribute to the build-up of greenhouse gases. The bill initiates means of altering cows’ diets to reduce these emissions.

On farms, the soil can hold or sequester carbon if left undisturbed and covered by a crop. The money from the bill will expand programs that help farmers turn their soil less, adopt climate-friendly crop rotation practices, and grow cover crops that aren’t meant for harvest but improve soil health.

“The historic funding validates the fact that these practices matter,” said Ranjani Prabhakar, expert on agriculture and climate policy at environmental group Earthjustice

Catch crops, for example, are only used by a fraction of farmers. If their use were to triple — from about 5% of farmland to 15% — it could remove the equivalent of 14 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, roughly equal to New Hampshire’s total annual emissions, according to researchers at Columbia University, Kevin Karl.

“The adoption rate is so low,” Karl said. “There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Federal officials are already offering help to farmers on a variety of environmental issues, including irrigation and fertilizer use. A program helps finance maintenance relief for agricultural land.

Dan Sheafer works on nitrogen research at the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association and runs a 50-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 cover crops also have downsides that are forcing farmers who want an environmental benefit to change their practices.

“It just takes more time to grow cover crops,” he said.

The bill also includes money for research. While it is clear that proper soil management can sequester carbon, more needs to be known about important issues such as how long sequestered carbon remains in the soil.

Kaiyu Guan, a professor of climate and agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, said some people believe farmers aren’t paying enough attention to climate change.

“I think farmers shouldn’t be blamed, they should actually be given incentives,” Guan said. “They’re not just doing this to be part of the solution, to help the climate, they’re doing this to help their country.”

The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for reporting on water and environmental policies. The AP is solely responsible for all content. All of AP’s environmental reporting is available at https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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