Developing Climate-Smart Ag

Farm Groups Meet to Examine Role of Agriculture in Building Climate Resiliency

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Some of the pillars of climate-smart agriculture focus on the connecting productivity with adaptation and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. (Graphic courtesy of the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Farm organizations are beginning to talk about the evolution of climate-smart agriculture and the need to ensure the U.S. remains at the table as the United Nations begins developing an agricultural framework for climate change.

Representatives from more than 30 organizations were scheduled to meet in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for the steering committee for the North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. The meeting was hosted by the American Farm Bureau Federation and sponsored by the group Business for Social Responsibility. Beyond the U.S., farm leaders from Canada and Mexico also were scheduled to talk about climate-smart agriculture strategies in their countries as well.

The meeting marks a slight change in at least some farm organizations, which have largely avoided the specific topic of climate change since the former Obama administration championed a national cap-and-trade strategy more than eight years ago.

While the Trump administration has sought to peel back Obama-era policies on climate change, some agricultural leaders see the need for the U.S. to remain involved on global climate strategies.

"The world is growing," said Ernie Shea, president of the group Solutions from the Land and an organizer of Tuesday's meeting.

"There are going to be 10 billion people and they have to eat. Agriculture has to grow, but it also has to be sustainable."

Shea visited with DTN last week in Washington about the meeting and the reasons U.S. agriculture needs to re-engage on the issue of climate change.

Changing climatic conditions are a problem. That was reflected in 2017's natural disasters, which ranged from a succession of hurricanes to wildfires in the Plains to California and drought in the Northern Plains. Damage to U.S. property last year from natural disasters reached $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

"These are all the things that science said was going to happen," Shea said. "The U.S. is a big breadbasket, but we're not immune to the impacts of climate. Climate change is a threat multiplier not just to producers in the U.S., but everybody."

The initial focus for commodity organizations and USDA is coalescing around the idea of accelerated adoptive management practices to help build resiliency in the farming system. This involves the various actions farmers and the overall supply chain have taken to reduce costs and help mitigate risks to extreme weather events.

"That has been a pretty comfortable platform to get the aggies back to the table," Shea said.

The North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance has three main goals: 1) sustainably increase agricultural productivity and farmers' livelihoods; 2) enhance adaptive capacity and improve resiliency; and 3) deliver ecosystem services, such as sequestering carbon and reducing or avoiding greenhouse-gas emissions.

Outside of adaptation and mitigation, there is the potential to develop a market component by helping link farmers using climate-smart practices with buyers looking to promote more sustainable agriculture. Such practices would include no-till farming, planting cover crops and other farm practices that help sequester carbon and build resiliency. A missing component in all of this is a set of metrics and validation for farmers to help develop these kinds of markets.

"Our vision is this reward mechanism for farmers could be pretty powerful," Shea said.

Back in November, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met in Germany and reached a decision to advance more work in the area of agriculture. The group, called the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture, now has two years to work on the challenges and "bold actions" needed in agriculture before the U.N. climate meeting in November 2020 when more specific actions toward agriculture and climate will be detailed for the U.N. to take up. (…)

The U.N.'s long-term agricultural climate project also came after Rabobank and the U.N. agreed to help support $1 billion in financing for sustainable agricultural development in parts of the world such as Brazil and Indonesia.

This new joint U.N. agricultural framework is one reason U.S. farm groups are starting to revisit the topic of climate change. There's a risk that if the U.S. is not at the table on such topics, it could get shut out of the decision-making process. Other export-driven countries could put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage.

"Clearly, I think the Europeans are going to try to use it as a competitive advantage in trade," Shea said.

Some areas being examined are enabling policies that help encourage farmers such as using crop insurance or conservation programs for climate solutions. Iowa, for instance, initiated a program this year to reduce crop-insurance premiums as much as $5 an acre for farmers to plant cover crops. Other policies that could be perceived as lowering overall emissions would include things such as investment in water infrastructure to move more grain, oilseed and inputs through barges rather than trucks or rail.

Chris Clayton can be reached at

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Chris Clayton