Ag Policy Blog

Agreeing on Research and Counting Carbon

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Bruce Knight, a former USDA undersecretary in the last Bush administration, is a conservation consultant who worked with the think-tank AGree on a report released this week looking at policy recommendations for agriculture to address climate change. Multiple groups released climate recommendations with similar themes. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Knight)

Multiple policy groups are issuing recommendations on where federal policy needs increased research or investment on agriculture and climate change.

A small flurry of policy white reports and reports came out this week from the policy group AGree, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Solutions from the Land. Each offered some recommendations on where federal policy should move when it comes to research and investment in agriculture and climate change.

AGree, a think tank focused on long-term agricultural policy, on Thursday released a paper titled "The Role of Agricultural Policy at the Nexus of Climate, Food and Water." The paper provides some policy options to consider at USDA or in Congress as they consider how to tackle climate change, food production and water management.

AGree seeks bipartisan discussion so the report was led by officials from different administrations -- Bruce Knight and Chris Adamo. Knight is a conservation consultant and founder of Strategic Conservation Solutions LLC, and he was a USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs under the George W. Bush administration, and chief of NRCS before that.

Adamo is vice president of federal affairs for the dairy and food company Danone North America. Adamo was chief of state for former President Barack Obama's White House Council on Environmental Quality and before that he served as staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee under Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Talking to DTN, Knight stressed one of the major aspects of AGree's analysis is the need for additional research and science, especially when it comes to accounting for accounting for emissions and how to store carbon on lands.

Knight said there is a need for more data such as livestock enteric fermentation, and more research is needed to develop "a rapid, cost-effective, cheap soil testing." He added that USDA needs more data on conservation practices. "When you boil all this down, more research is needed," he said. "You have got this gap on how do you measure where you could go."

Other research could better link carbon sequestration to carbon markets, but also improvements in water quality, Knight noted. Some of this will be tied to practices and models, and not direct measurement, he said.

"For a carbon market or a water-quality market, it's not going to be all measurement," he said. "It's going to be measure and model and get the right models that can estimate changes in technology, along with these changes in carbon."

The AGree report delves into the weeds by highlighting USDA could conduct more research and analysis if USDA better implemented the Agricultural Data Act in the 2018 farm bill to take stock of data sets on conservation practices and crop yields, or soil health and factors that reduce risk. More programs also are needed to monitor on-the-ground conditions such as remote sensing technologies. Other considerations include how to incorporate conservation incentives into crop insurance such as lower premiums, higher premium subsidies, or even higher reference prices and marketing loans to drive adoption of certain conservation practices.

On the program side, there are ideas such as bonus payments in the commodity programs such as ARC-PLC. Those payments could be tied to the longevity of a producer using certain practices that sequester carbon.

The Biden administration is moving aggressively in areas related to climate change, but some policy moves will have to come from Congress. Changes such as adjusting commodity or conservation programs may have to wait until the next farm bill.

An idea that has come up repeatedly, and noted in the AGree report, is designing a "carbon bank" under USDA's authority with the Commodity Credit Corp. A USDA carbon bank could both finance carbon practices and set a price floor for markets. It could also spur other markets after USDA has set a standard for such programs.

The AGree report also included "water" in the title and throughout to avoid repeating some mistakes in the past of just fixating agriculture on reducing emissions and carbon sequestration. Water, having too much or not enough, ties into some of the challenges from climate change. Adapting cropping practices for climate change also leads to associated benefits in water quality that should not be overlooked.

"When you look at a good strategy on fertilizer management, that can give us increased yields, increased efficiency in fertilizer, decreased nitrous oxide emissions, and at the same time you can reduce water-quality risk," Knight said. "That's more within reach today than it ever has been in the past. But we have to look at these things through a lens of how do you achieve a climate agenda, as well as a water-quality agenda, as well a feeding people."

See more on AGree -- The Role of Agricultural Policy at the Nexus of Climate, Food and Water at…


John Newton, chief economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, also wrote an AFBF Market Intel report looking at carbon sequestration and land use. The report highlights that more research is needed into the tools for agriculture to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Newton's piece points to the potential benefits of using agriculture and forestry as carbon sinks. Looking EPA's carbon emissions inventory data for 2018, agricultural and forestry removed about 764 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere, or about 12% of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, carbon stocks in agriculture and forestry are down about 9% since 1990, or effectively 80 million metric tons of carbon.

Overall, agriculture also accounts for about 9.3% of U.S. emissions or about 619 mmt in 2018.

"While always open to new climate-smart practices and technology to reduce emissions levels, farmers and ranchers could play an even larger role in the future to help us achieve our climate goals by adopting voluntary practices to offset GHG emissions, such as trapping carbon in the soil through increased conservation cover and reduced tillage," Newton wrote. "For livestock, increasing the number of anaerobic digesters and improved nutrient management and feed efficiency will help to reduce carbon emissions."

The challenge, though, is highlighting the importance of investing in agricultural research to develop new technologies and tools to increase carbon in soils "without jeopardizing the world's production of food, fiber and renewable biofuels."

See more on American Farm Bureau Federation Market Intel -- Reviewing U.S. Carbon Sequestration: Land Use Data Underscores the Importance of Agricultural Research in Reducing Emissions at…


Layering on with the climate-smart agriculture reports comes a new white paper from Solutions from the Land, which has continued to work in the climate and agriculture space. The 30-page report, "21st Century Agriculture Renaissance," was written by farmers and ranchers highlights broader goals for ensuring agricultural stewardship is rewarded and sustainable.

Looking again at feeding a population of 10 billion people by 2050, the Solutions from the Land report looks at some of the changes needed in agricultural systems to build resiliency for farmers, livestock producers and foresters. The report stresses the need for solutions that help ensure agriculture is profitable for those who live on and operate the farm.

Outside of purely conservation measures, Solutions from the Land points to opportunities in technology such as gene editing, biological inputs to replace chemicals, and technology to monitor water and soil nutrients. The report also looks beyond the U.S. to agricultural management changes in other countries. For instance, the United Nations has 17 sustainable development goals and agriculture fits in several places.

"Today's agriculture must address hunger, livelihoods, water scarcity, clean water, healthy soil, ecosystem resilience, climate change, greenhouse gases and a whole range of local and global realities," the report states.

See more on 21st Century Agriculture Renaissance: Solutions from the Land


Chris Clayton can be reached at

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6/19/2021 | 1:27 PM CDT
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2/16/2021 | 7:24 AM CST
Climate has been changing since the beginning of time and will continue to do so on a natural basis. I haven't seen any extremes in weather or climate that my Grandfather or father didn't see and I'm 70 years old. There are so many things that effect weather that even with all the technology today, weather men are only 50% accurate. Magnetics effect the weather and according to some weather gurus, the earths magnetic fields change from time to time. The last 2 nights we have broken record lows set in the 1930's and a look at the weather records shows that during the 30"s we also had record 105 plus heat. There weren't near the combustion engines or factories back then to produce carbon. Now they are blaming weather on animal farts- come on man. Carbon in the air only amounts to .04%. We have far bigger problems to tackle. Our education system is failing us.
2/16/2021 | 2:16 AM CST
The above is all political gobbly gook. Where we need to start is by teaching, talking about and acknowledging how our natural biological system works . All schools should teach this. Birds, fish, animals and people eat other plants and animals and breath in air. Thier bodies use the proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, trace minerals, etc and oxygen and they poop, pee and breath out carbon dioxide. The poop and pee contain the same elements that are in fertilizer- phosphates, potash, nitrogen, sulfur and other natural elements and the exhaled air contains carbon dioxide which plants use to grow. Plants also use the carbon dioxide to grow and exhale oxygen for plants, animals, fish and people to use. According to several websites I googled, our air is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, .9% Argon, .04% water vapor, .04% carbon dioxide, and traces of about a dozen other elements. Right now the carbon dioxide in the air runs about 500- 750 parts per Million and has been as high as high as 8000 ppm several thousand years ago. Carbon dioxide is plant food. Plants are using it up as fast as we are making it. Ever notice in the pictures of smog that there are all buildings in the pictures and very few plants and trees? Does it really make sense to worry about carbon in the air when it makes up such a small part of the air? With 78% of the air being nitrogen, doesn't it make sense that there will be some in the water all the time and more after heavy rain events? It appears that our education system is failing us and just promoting an unscientific agenda.