Debate About Ag and Climate Goals

Ag Emissions Projected to Decline More Slowly Than Other Sectors of Economy

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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A forecast looking at different scenarios of emission reductions in agriculture by the Boston Consulting Group in a study conducted for the Walton Family Foundation. The study shows other sectors of the economy are on track to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions more quickly than agriculture. (Graph from Walton Family Foundation report)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- An environmental group known for criticizing production agriculture spotlighted a study last week showing that agriculture is on a pathway to becoming a larger share of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Biden administration expects agriculture will lower emissions and sequester more carbon with new financial incentives. Meanwhile, Republican senators last week pointed out that greenhouse-gas emissions are not the only natural resources concern facing farmers.

The Environmental Working Group last week spotlighted a report on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions initially released in January by the Walton Family Foundation. The report by the Boston Consulting Group points out agricultural emissions equaled roughly 635 million metric tons (mmt) of carbon, or about 11% of total national emissions in 2020, according to EPA. The Boston Consulting Group, however, looks at the entire food supply chain, land-use change and both "pre- and post-production" to peg agri-food emissions at 20% to 25% of total emissions.

Yet, if emissions from other sectors of the economy such as electricity and transportation fall as projected, the agri-food sector's share of U.S. emissions could clime to as much as 30% by 2050.


The Boston Consulting Group report examined three scenarios for emission changes in agriculture that projected agriculture could reduce emissions anywhere from 1% to 18% by 2030, and somewhere from 10% to 57% by 2050.

Agriculture could lower emissions more if farmers aggressively adopt practices that reduce nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer and reduce methane emissions caused by farm animals and their waste and increase carbon storage in plants and soil. These practices include changes to optimize the amount and timing of chemical fertilizers.

"There are clearly stats proving steps farmer can take to reduce emissions," said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for EWG. "But they all require changes in how we farm. Some of them cost money. Some may be new risks, so they all require some form of compensation."


At the USDA Outlook Forum in late February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said a critical part of the climate strategy is to help farmers remain or become productive and profitable. Achieving emission goals will be a challenge, he said.

"I think America has a particular challenge with reference to climate and the president's been pretty clear he wants agriculture to be part of the solution and not the problem," Vilsack said. "And so he has challenged us to get to net-zero emissions connected to agriculture by the year 2050. That's a heavy task, but I think we're up to it."

The Biden administration's national goals also commit to reducing emissions at least 50% below 2005 levels in 2030. USDA's goals, according to a 2021 strategic plan, cite that USDA will "help all producers, landowners, partners, and rural and Tribal communities tackle climate change," which includes "support meeting the president's target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions economywide by 50% to 52% by 2030."

In his talk at Outlook, Vilsack pointed to the Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities -- a pilot program of 140 projects nationally -- as a strategy initiated to remain focused on a "voluntary, market-based, incentive-based system and process for getting farmers to embrace climate-smart practices."

Faber credited USDA for starting the climate-smart commodities program, saying there is a lot to learn about sequestration and carbon practices. The partnership grants will require monitoring, verification and reporting on practices and emissions.

"Hopefully we will use that to better understand which practices reduce emissions and which practices sequester carbon in ways that are measurable and verifiable," Faber said.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., also said better research is needed on measuring carbon and she wanted to know more about how USDA is measuring carbon.

"There's a need for more research, and a better understanding of how that is working," Smith said last week at a U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on conservation programs.


This week, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Union of Concerned Scientists, farmworkers and other groups will hold three days of rallies and lobbying at the U.S. Capitol highlighting the need to continue investing in climate change in the next farm bill -- among other policy goals.

That comes after a group representing 80 farm groups, the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, (FACA) called for "robust funding" in the next farm bill. FACA calls on expanding USDA's suite of conservation programs, "to encourage practices that improve soil health, increase carbon sequestration, reduce emissions and improve the resilience of farm and ranch operations."

Faber highlighted the need to protect the $19.5 billion in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act that boosted USDA funding for key conservation programs such as $8.45 billion in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and $3.25 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Eyes are already looking at how to move at least some of those funds to other areas in the farm bill -- such as boosting commodity programs.

"If we rob climate-smart funding to pay for margin protection or increased reference prices, we will be cutting off our nose to spite our face," Faber said. "Because this farm bill or the next farm bill are really going to determine whether agriculture is the No. 1 source of emissions."

In last week's hearing, Smith highlighted the boost for CSP and EQIP, pointing out that in recent years just one-fifth of Minnesota farmers who applied for those programs were accepted.

"Most of these programs are over-prescribed since the 2018 farm bill," Smith said.

Smith asked USDA witnesses to make the case about how more farmers enrolled in the conservation programs would build resiliency and improve crop production. Cosby said NRCS staff will discuss local resource concerns and rank more projects to approve from there.

"We will be looking at the over-prescribed as well as the customers walking in the door and the IRA is going to give us an opportunity to expand these programs," Cosby said.


Thousands of corn, soybean, wheat, sorghum and other commodity farmers this week will descend on Orlando, Florida, for Commodity Classic. The event's educational seminars and expo hall will be filled with conversations about bringing more attention to carbon farming.

Ron Hovsepian, president and CEO of Indigo Ag, spoke to a group of mostly European landowners last week who were in the U.S. to learn about how U.S. agriculture is balancing emission goals and food production. Hovsepian noted agriculture is "one of the few industries that can be a net-positive contributor to the environment."

Looking at carbon, Hovsepian said he sees significant potential for agriculture both in the U.S. and globally to reduce emissions and sequester carbon in the atmosphere.

"Out of the atmosphere, I see that agriculture could easily handle somewhere between four and 6 billion (metric) tons," Hovsepian said. "We can do that, and we can deliver that in a meaningful way."

Hovsepian added he believes agriculture will be able to accelerate its emission reductions with emerging technologies.

Shari Rogge-Fidler, president and CEO of the Farm Foundation, also spoke with Hovsepian at the European Forum for the Future of Agriculture. Using her farm as an example, she noted there are challenges finding expertise to help farmers when they hit barriers with issues such as cover crops. More resources will be needed if the country wants to accelerate the adoption of climate-smart strategies, she said.

"I think the adoption curves are too slow for us to hit our targets on time," Rogge-Fidler said.

Republican senators at last week's hearing also stressed to USDA officials that carbon emissions or sequestration are not agriculture's only conservation concerns.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said Congress isn't receiving details on how USDA is using the funding from the IRA bill. The focus on climate and carbon is neglecting other resource concerns such as nutrient management and water management.

"Prioritizing climate and carbon sequestration in the conservation programs is, I think, neglecting that there are some important resource concerns regarding other things," Boozman said. Boozman added he was concerned that crops that have difficulty sequestering carbon are going to be left out of conservation funding.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., whose state remains in a persistent drought, said he thinks USDA conservation programs should be focused on water conservation. USDA should encourage more "water-smart activities" on the land, he said.

Zach Ducheneaux, USDA's Farm Service Agency chief, agreed, "Water is critical. Without water, none of the rest of this works."

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., also made another point clear. "Mandates on our producers will not be entertained in any way," he said.

Walton Family Foundation report on agricultural emissions.…

Also see, "Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance Lays Out Policy Agenda for Farm Bill,"…

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton