By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Farmers are going to play a larger role helping mitigate climate change over the next decade through a list of initiatives rolled out by USDA.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House adviser Brian Deese went to Michigan State University on Thursday to talk about the various ways USDA plans to leverage its programs for different sectors of agriculture to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Deese declared USDA's announcement as a "very big deal" that would translate into farmers and ranchers lowering annual greenhouse-gas emissions by about 120 million tons by 2025. That would translate into roughly 25 million cars off the road -- based on EPA's formula that the average car on the road burns about 4.75 tons of carbon dioxide per year.
President Barack Obama pledged last year to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the range of 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
According to EPA, agriculture accounts for about 650 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, or about 9% of the U.S. total emissions. A 120-million-ton reduction would equate to agriculture cutting its own emissions by about 20% over the next decade.
"I would say this is an opportunity for us to reiterate, to repeat, to reinforce the fact that producers, farmers, ranchers and forest owners around the United States are already engaged in a wide variety of technologies and practices to reduce emissions," Vilsack said.
The secretary stressed that these climate initiatives would come from voluntary practices driven by incentives in various conservation or energy programs already in existence at USDA. By the same token, Vilsack said the policy initiatives around climate change at USDA would not require any increased funding levels from Congress.
Most of the efforts will concentrate on areas USDA already champions, particularly using soil-health practices to reduce tillage and increase cover crops. In that vein, USDA wants to expand the no-till practices to more than 100 million acres by 2025.
Tied into cropping practices, USDA plans to work with groups ranging from the Fertilizer Institute to Environmental Defense Fund to focus on nitrogen stewardship with the right timing, type, placement and quantity of fertilizer to lower nitrous oxide emissions. That should also translate into cost-saving benefits for producers by lowering their fertilizer expenses.
The secretary said he believed farmers would not recoil from working on a climate initiative, but instead embrace the effort as another way to demonstrate their stewardship practices.
"I think they will seize on this as an opportunity to show the rest of the country that farmers care deeply about the soil," Vilsack said.
In livestock, USDA plans to streamline programs that would help dairy and hog farmers to build anaerobic digesters and other practices that reduce methane emissions. USDA wants to help livestock producers build 500 new methane digesters over the next decade.
With conservation programs, USDA plans to enroll 400,000 acres into the Conservation Reserve Program that would provide an ability to sequester carbon in the soils. CRP and easement programs would also help expand buffer strips, tree planting and the protection of wetlands.
In a similar vein, USDA would help capture carbon in as much as 4 million acres of rangeland as well.
During a press call, Vilsack was asked why American farmers would buy into USDA's initiative. The secretary said farmers are seeing the effects of climate change and realize that more volatile weather could hurt their operations in the future.
"They're seeing hotter temperatures, they're seeing longer droughts, they're seeing floods, they're seeing snowstorms at unusual times, they're seeing impacts of a changing climate and understand and appreciate the need to adapt," Vilsack said.
Vilsack added that USDA is using existing conservation programs that farmers and ranchers already use and know. "We are just going to use them in a more efficient and effective way and leverage them with partners and farm organizations," Vilsack said.
Agricultural groups are generally leery to jump out and praise any initiative surrounding climate change, but Field to Market -- which has more than 70 companies and organizations participating -- pledged to support USDA's climate-smart program.
"Perhaps no other industry is more affected by climate change than agriculture, which is why farmers are committed to reducing their environmental impacts and maximizing the resiliency of crop production in the face of these challenges," said Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market. "We are proud to partner with USDA by helping growers measure and deliver sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by better understanding the environmental impacts of different farming practices."
Environmental Defense Fund has been working on fertilizer optimization programs with agricultural retailers such as United Suppliers. EDF praised USDA for focusing on a collaborative approach that will further encourage agribusinesses and non-governmental groups to work together in areas such as fertilizer efficiency.
"From our perspective, I think they are calling attention to the critical need and opportunity for going the next step on cooperative conservation, recognizing this isn't just about what farmers need to do, but what different players in the agricultural industry, sector and supply chain need to play," said Suzy Friedman, director of agricultural sustainability at EDF. "This will be USDA going further down the pathway of engaging across the supply chain with the private sector because it is going to take all of us agribusiness, farmers, ag retailers and supply companies to make all of this work."
More details about USDA's climate-smart program can be found at http://dld.bz/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN
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