Agriculture is uniquely positioned to mitigate climate change — but farmers need the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) support to fully realize that potential, according to National Farmers Union (NFU).
In comments submitted, the family farm organization outlined ways UDSA could better “encourage the development, adoption, and equitable delivery of climate smart practices.” While the agency already has a suite of programs that can achieve this goal, they are falling short in some respects. For one, many programs do not currently prioritize climate in their criteria, making it difficult for farmers to use them to meet climate goals on their operations. As a remedy, NFU President Rob Larew encouraged USDA to “publicly state that climate change is an urgent priority. . .and ensure programs reflect this prioritization.” Additionally, it should give precedence to applications that result in “positive soil health, carbon sequestration, and resilience outcomes in line with local climate change resource concerns.”
The omission of climate mitigation and adaptation is not the only shortcoming; a lack of staff also limits the efficacy of farm programs.
“One Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employee may be tasked with serving scores, if not hundreds of farmers across a large geographical region,” Larew said. “With no one…to provide trusted information, farmers often do not know how they should move forward.”
To ensure access to adequate technical assistance, USDA should substantially increase NRCS staffing levels and provide robust training specific to regional soil types, production and cropping systems, livestock, and weather conditions.
While it’s important to strengthen existing USDA programs, “the scale of the climate crisis and the costs of combating it is too large for these efforts alone to resolve.” To complement its activities, the agency should expand its focus to local governments and the private sector. One place to start, per Larew’s recommendation, is private carbon markets. Though “carbon markets present a great opportunity for farmers and ranchers,” the comments read, “they do come with risks.”
Larew called on USDA to minimize those risks and provide more certainty for farmers by “creating a public third-party verification system,” facilitating access to information about these markets, and working to “prevent consolidation in agricultural carbon markets and the corporate purchasing of farmland for the generation of carbon credits.”
As it pursues climate solutions, USDA must ensure its endeavors advance racial and gender equity. Larew urged the agency to “listen to. . .the many organizations actively working to promote the livelihoods of farmers who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color, as well as LGBTQ farmers, women, veterans, and other socially disadvantaged groups.” Doing so will help not only help USDA better serve those groups, but it could also broaden the agency’s understanding of climate smart agriculture.