Data deficiencies can impede America’s plans for ‘climate-smart’ agriculture

(Originally published by The Hill on April 12, 2023)

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Climate change is both a scourge and an opportunity for the agricultural sector. Shifting growing seasons, prolonged heat waves, and long-term droughts punctuated by extreme flooding events are bedeviling many farmers and ranchers. On the opportunity side, however, many farmers, ranchers and their suppliers and customers are excited about the prospect that deploying “climate-smart” farming and ranching practices can generate production and climate-related benefits — while potentially scoring financial rewards, including premium prices at the supermarket.

There is reason for optimism. Planting cover crops and reducing tillage limits the loss of soil carbon and can, over time, build up carbon stocks in agricultural soils — while also helping to maintain moisture and prevent erosion. Planting trees as windbreaks or as pasture shade trees can remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide additional soil stability. And careful attention to fertilizer use and livestock feeds can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide and methane — two powerful greenhouse gasses that are major climate villains.

As described in a new report issued today, however, two key factors are holding back the promise of climate-smart agriculture. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is relying too heavily on models to make gross, high-level conclusions regarding climate and other benefits from specified practices. These models have served a useful purpose, but their assumption-based predictions typically do not match — and cannot take the place of — measurement and monitoring data that validate climate benefits. Second, while the USDA and some private parties have financed the collection of a large volume of field-based data on carbon in soils and more limited data on methane and nitrous oxide emissions, these data are not — as a general rule — available to researchers. As a result, there are few, if any, publicly-accessible datasets to identify baseline conditions or to track increases in soil carbon or reductions in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

David Hayes 1
David Hayes, Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School

The good news is that recent federal legislation and Biden administration action set the stage for the United States to address these measurement and data management deficiencies, expand the deployment of climate-smart practices, and generate appropriate financial rewards for participating farmers and ranchers.

In particular, Congress has tied nearly $20 billion in agriculture-related conservation funding in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to a determination by the secretary of Agriculture that funded practices “directly improve” soil carbon or reduce methane or nitrous oxide emissions. Congress recognized that data improvements are needed to credibly make such a determination, and it earmarked $300 million for the USDA to “quantify” and “monitor and track” climate benefits via “field-based data,” with special attention devoted to livestock-related methane emissions.

The administration’s launch of a $3.1 billion Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program mirrors the congressional push for more and better climate data. The program explicitly challenged applicants to come forward with innovative approaches to more precisely measure and monitor the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart practices. Many of the public-private pilot projects funded under the program are now getting underway.

The stage is set, but the administration must move aggressively to identify priorities and make key structural changes to actuate climate-smart agriculture’s enormous potential. Today’s report by the Stanford Law and Policy Lab and the Bezos Earth Fund includes specific recommendations toward that end. First and foremost, it emphasizes the importance of prioritizing attention on methane and nitrous oxide emissions that account for 90 percent of agricultural emissions. When it comes to climate, soil carbon has commanded the USDA’s near-exclusive attention. That needs to change.

The report also recommends that the USDA establish a Climate-Smart Protocol Clearinghouse to facilitate the identification of protocols that are widely accepted as reliable and appropriate norms for measuring and monitoring incremental carbon removals and methane and nitrous oxide reductions. Congress recently encouraged the USDA to undertake such an exercise. Establishing a clearinghouse to accomplish this important task should not be delayed.

Third, to confront the growing problem of proprietary datasets and take full advantage of the impending collection of a large tranche of publicly-funded new measurement and monitoring datasets, the USDA — working with the White House, the U.S. Digital Service, and philanthropic partners — should establish a professionally-managed Agriculture Greenhouse Gas Data Management System that can serve as a repository of greenhouse gas measurement and monitoring data. The system would facilitate the collection of data in anonymized and interoperable formats that enable governmental, academic and private experts to benchmark climate-smart practices and validate protocols without compromising farmer privacy interests.

Finally, to meet the moment, the USDA should establish a strong implementation infrastructure that includes an expert advisory committee to provide the secretary of Agriculture with ongoing scientific input on the full scope of the administration’s ambitious climate-smart agriculture initiative. The USDA also should form a Climate-Smart Strike Team that brings the many USDA bureaus involved in this cross-cutting initiative under a unified, high-level command structure that reports directly to the secretary. And the department should emphasize outreach and technical assistance on climate-smart practices that it provides to the farmer and rancher communities, including smaller operators, Indian tribes and historically disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

Farmers and ranchers who voluntarily deploy climate-smart practices have an opportunity to obtain financial rewards for doing so. But currently, data deficiencies stand in the way. That’s a problem that can — and must — be fixed.

David J. Hayes is a lecturer in law at Stanford Law School and former special assistant to President Biden for climate policy. Andy Jarvis is the director of the Future of Food at the Bezos Earth Fund. Both had leadership roles in producing the “Data Progress Needed for Climate-Smart Agriculture” report.