Vilsack Touts Climate Efforts

USDA Taking Further Steps to Build Climate Resiliency

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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USDA on Thursday announced $72.3 million in Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funding to target soil health and nutrient stewardship, such as promoting cover crops. (DTN file photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- As the Obama administration begins to wind down, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is trying to ensure USDA continues work on a long-term strategy for dealing with climate change.

In an interview Wednesday, Vilsack said USDA's work on climate mitigation and resiliency will ideally cause people to take a longer view of the risks posed by a warmer planet with more volatile weather patterns. "It isn't enough to just worry about today and tomorrow, but if you are someone worrying about future generations having the same opportunities that you have had to farm, to ranch, then it's incumbent on people today to take the steps to ensure that opportunity continues," Vilsack said.

Given the country's stature in global food production, the secretary said countries around the world are watching how U.S. agriculture works to both mitigate climate change and develop adaptation strategies to handle increased risks to future food production. Vilsack argues that climate change represents an opportunity for agriculture to grow, expand and be innovative to meet the challenge.

"We cannot be a world global leader unless we step up ourselves and take steps and, to the extent we are willing to hold ourselves accountable for these building blocks or specific reaction and specific results, I think it makes us a much more credible leader globally," he said.

The secretary spoke about climate-smart agriculture and USDA's various climate-related initiatives Thursday at an event hosted by the Center for American Progress as the department also released a report, "Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry" to highlight some of the department's work in that vein.

"I'm excited about this report because I think it shows we're serious about this, that we're moving forward in a multitude of ways from new renewable energy projects to encouraging rotational grazing of livestock to putting the most sensitive land in CRP as we did recently to helping farmers be more precise with the nutrient applications," Vilsack said.

To further spur climate resiliency, USDA also announced $72.3 million in Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funding to target soil health and nutrient stewardship such as promoting cover crops, increasing no-till activity and focusing on the four Rs regarding the application of fertilizer: right time, right rate, right amount and right application process.

"We've seen an increase in cover crop activity and we've seen an increase in no-till, but obviously we want to continue to encourage that," Vilsack said. "One way to do that is by directing EQIP sources to promote those concepts."

Three years ago, USDA created climate hubs around the country to assess vulnerabilities and possible strategies for adaptation to climate change as well as mitigation strategies. "That's the purpose of these hubs is to ensure people take the long view here, and that's the reason we have got these building blocks set up," Vilsack said.

USDA then created 10 building blocks to engage farmers, landowners and forest owners to work on a system that would help double the rate of emission reductions from agriculture and forestry in the U.S. over the next decade, seeking to reduce agricultural emissions by roughly 120 million metric tons annually. If successful, agriculture would then account for 2% of the 26%-28% U.S. emission reduction commitment in the Paris climate accord over the next 10 years. This also would allow agriculture and forestry to maintain the "net sink" of carbon that the industries now bank domestically.

Agriculture accounts for about 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA. Globally, the average national emissions from agriculture are about 14%.

"We are front and center and hold ourselves accountable," he said. "I don't think anybody has to worry about whether agriculture is engaged or whether or not there's a recognition globally that American agriculture and American forestry are doing their fair share."

Still, biofuel groups have criticized the Obama administration for feeling left out of the U.S. strategy for reducing national emissions. Vilsack dismissed that argument and said biofuels are a key component of agriculture's role in reducing emissions.

"I'm not sure why they got bent out of shape about this because we we're out of the box first and ag was out of the box first, in a sense, when we announced these building blocks," Vilsack said. "And part of the building blocks are renewable energy systems, and clearly we have been promoting the environmental benefits of biofuels in terms of emission reductions and the impact they can have."

USDA's report on its climate strategy can be found here: http://www.usda.gov/…

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Chris Clayton