USDA released a technical document Thursday that provides guidelines for measuring greenhouse-gas emissions from various agricultural practices as well as standards for sequestering carbon through farm and forestry activities.
The report, "Quantifying Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Agriculture and Forestry: Methods for Entity-Scale Inventory," ties into a number of other efforts this week by the Obama administration to highlight the connection between climate change and agriculture. The White House also rolled out a climate-data initiative to target "food resilience" by using data tools to better prepare agriculture to adapt to more extreme weather conditions.
The purpose of the greenhouse-gas methodology report released Thursday is to document ways to show strategies or tools to manage greenhouse gas emissions on the farm and sequester carbon. "We're focused on the farm and focused on the practices that have environmental benefits on the farm," said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.
Bonnie said the report provides a roadmap to quantify the impacts of greenhouse-gas emissions on a variety of farm practices. The report's methodologies will likely be integrated into USDA's conservation programs.
"We believe this report can serve as a very important scientific tool that can help farmers, ranchers and forest owners, agencies and others who are interested to encourage better stewardship on farms, ranchers and forest lands," Bonnie said.
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The report actually stems from a provision in the 2008 farm bill, but it has taken USDA this long to finalize the document. At the time, Congress appeared to be moving toward the creation of a national carbon market that would pay landowners to sequester carbon. Those efforts failed in 2009-10, but USDA continued its work on the report. Different states and private programs continue to set up carbon-offset markets, but each operates under its own standards for measuring emissions.
Bonnie said the report will help provide some scientific underpinning to those efforts to create carbon markets.
"We think this report will provide an important tool to help advance stewardship on private working lands," Bonnie said.
The USDA report cites that U.S. agricultural emissions in 2008 accounted for 6.1% of the country's total emissions, though forestry also sequestered enough carbon to offset about 13% of U.S. greenhouse gases. The two main greenhouse gases in agriculture are nitrous oxide from commercial fertilizers and methane from livestock.
EPA cites that agriculture accounted for 10% of all U.S. emissions in 2012. Some of that discrepancy in numbers is due to declining emissions in other major sectors of the economy due to the economic downturn in 2008-2010.
Bill Hohenstein, head of USDA's climate office, said the standards defined by USDA would also allow businesses or farmers to create metrics for a comprehensive greenhouse-gas footprint on an operation that could improve through various ways such as improving energy efficiency, better manure management, reducing fertilizer or changing tillage practices to better build carbon from the soil.
"So we are very interested in getting this report down into the field where it will be useful to our programs and the farmers who use them," Hohenstein said.
The technical nature of the 564-page USDA report makes it impractical for a typical farmer to wade through and use as a guide or manual. Still, USDA sees the report as a way to lay out methodologies for anyone looking for a way to quantify greenhouse-gas emissions. Bonnie said one of the challenges with carbon sequestration is that there has been a lack of certainty about how carbon is being measured. Moreover, the methods can be built into tools that farmers can use to measure their emissions or efforts to reduce carbon.
"The important thing is that they will have the confidence that that science underlying those has been peer-reviewed, it's been vetted by USDA experts and by outside experts," Bonnie said. "Ultimately, I think that's the value of doing a scientific report like this."
There are various efforts in agriculture and food production to measure the carbon and energy footprint on the farm and more are being created. Field to Market is one of the industry's biggest efforts because of the broad array of companies and groups involved. Companies such as Walmart have sustainability programs focusing on reducing nitrous oxide emissions in the supply chain by reducing fertilizer applications on corn. General Mills also announced earlier this week the company would take more aggressive action to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improve water efficiency in its commodity supply chain as well.
"To this end, we've made a commitment to sustainably source 100% of our 10 priority ingredients by 2020. These ingredients represent 50% of our total raw material purchases," wrote John Church, executive vice president of supply chain operations at General Mills, in a blog on Monday. "Today, we further our commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainable agriculture by announcing a corporate climate policy that establishes a framework for our efforts to track and reduce GHG emissions across our broader value chain. This includes requiring key ingredient suppliers to demonstrate environmental, social and economic improvements in their supply chains."
The full report and supporting documents can be viewed at http://www.usda.gov/…
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