Report from Stanford Law School Policy Lab and Bezos Earth Fund Makes Recommendations to Advance Climate-Smart Agriculture

To put climate-smart agricultural practices on a strong, data-informed footing, the recently released report urges new practices and protocols 

STANFORD, CA, APRIL 12, 2023—Given the Biden administration’s commitment to “climate-smart” agriculture and accompanying Congressional support, the U.S. agricultural sector is poised to reduce its carbon footprint and make major contributions to combating climate change, according to a new report from Stanford Law School’s (SLS) Law and Policy Lab and the Bezos Earth Fund, published today. However, as the authors describe in “Data Progress Needed for Climate-Smart Agriculture,” critical improvements in carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide measurement and monitoring protocols and data sharing are needed to realize the full potential of climate-smart agriculture. 

View report: Data Progress needed for Climate-smart Agriculture

David Hayes, Lecturer in Law

The agriculture sector is a major source of the greenhouse gasses (GHG) that are causing climate change, accounting for approximately 10 percent of U.S. GHG emissions. Methane gas released from livestock is the primary climate-warming culprit, along with nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use. On the positive side, climate-smart agricultural practices such as planting cover crops, reducing tillage, and improving pasture management can help remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in soils. The climate-smart agriculture initiative looks to provide farmers and ranchers with financial incentives to encourage these types of soil management practices, as well as practices that will reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. 

The report is the product of an interdisciplinary policy lab practicum, Harvesting Climate Benefits from Agriculture and Forestry, commissioned by the Bezos Earth Fund and led by SLS Lecturer David J. Hayes, former special assistant to President Biden for climate policy. The research and recommendations were developed by SLS students and other graduate students from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Doerr School of Sustainability under Hayes’ direction. An op-ed authored by Hayes and Andy Jarvis of the Bezos Earth Fund summarizing the report was published today in The Hill.

Read The Hill op-ed

Recent Federal Funding Requires a Climate-Smart Reset

The SLS-Bezos Earth Fund team has released its report at a critical moment, Hayes said. Congress has tied nearly $20 billion in agricultural-related conservation funding in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to a determination by the Secretary of Agriculture that funded agricultural practices “directly improve” carbon sequestration in soil or reduce methane emissions from livestock or nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer—a mandate that requires new approaches to gathering and interpreting the relevant data. In addition, Congress has put aside $300 million for the USDA to quantify and monitor climate benefits through field-based data and also allocated $3.1 billion to pilot new approaches to greenhouse gas data collection through the Climate-Smart Commodities program.

“Unfortunately major data and analytical gaps currently prevent accurate and verifiable quantification of how much climate-smart farming and ranching practices are either growing carbon stocks in soil or reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions,” said Hayes, who designed his policy lab to confront these challenges.

“There has not been sufficient attention on developing practical, cost-effective protocols for measuring, monitoring, reporting and verifying climate benefits associated with agricultural practices. Current survey techniques utilized by the USDA are imprecise and do not take advantage of newly available technologies.”

“We are encouraged that there is strong interest across the country in expanding climate-smart farming and ranching practices,” said Jarvis, director of the Future of Food at the Bezos Earth Fund. “There are many practices, such as cover cropping, low or no tillage, nutrient management, and agroforestry that can significantly reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. The challenge has been the lack of reliable, consensus-based measurement, monitoring, reporting and verification protocols. These are the challenges and opportunities that are addressed in the report.”

The Recommendations

“One of the key recommendations underpinning our report is that the USDA should more highly prioritize efforts to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions, which together account for 90 percent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions,” said Hayes. “This will require a relative shift in resources away from monitoring carbon sequestration in soil, which to date has disproportionately commanded the attention of the USDA and others working in this space. At the same time, we found that there is an urgent need for agreed-upon data management protocols and systems, a vacuum that the USDA is well positioned to fill.”

The report makes a number of specific recommendations to the USDA including:

  • Launch of a USDA Ag-Methane Reduction Initiative and a Nitrous Oxide Demonstration Project that together will accelerate the adoption of agricultural practices, and measurement and monitoring data protocols, that target methane and nitrous oxide emissions, the largest sources of climate-damaging greenhouse gasses from agricultural activities. The methane-reduction initiative will identify and track advances globally and include the development of measurement and monitoring protocols. The nitrous oxide project will, among other things, prioritize federal funding for research into how to balance fertilizer efficacy and emissions reductions.
  • Launch of a two-phase Soil Carbon Measurement and Monitoring Plan that includes (1) a Soil Carbon Measurement Technology Review that will oversee the analysis of available soil carbon measurement and monitoring options, including new technologies and methodologies that have become available in recent years; and (2) a National Soil Carbon Monitoring Program that will utilize soil carbon protocols recommended by the Soil Carbon Measurement Technology Review to establish region-specific baselines of soil carbon concentrations against which changes in carbon stocks in soils will be measured and verified.
  • Establishment of a Climate-Smart Protocol Clearinghouse that creates a consolidated public inventory of protocols that are used throughout the agricultural sector to measure and monitor carbon removal and methane and nitrous oxide reductions. The Clearinghouse, which Congress already has encouraged the USDA to establish, will provide a platform for exchanging information about protocol development and deployment, creating an opportunity for the USDA, scientists, practitioners, and the farming community to coalesce around protocols that are widely accepted as reliable norms for measuring and monitoring carbon removals and greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • Establishment of an Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Data Management System to address the fact that publicly-financed agricultural measurement and monitoring data are not readily available to researchers and an increasing number of proprietary software products are limiting the availability of data that have industry-wide importance. The USDA, in collaboration with the White House, the U.S. Digital Service, and philanthropic partners, should set up a professionally managed data management system that will serve as a repository of greenhouse gas measurement and monitoring data and facilitate the collection of data in formats that enable benchmarking and validation without compromising farmer privacy interests. 

About the SLS Law and Policy Lab

Under the guidance of seasoned faculty advisers, Law and Policy Lab students counsel real-world clients in such areas as education, copyright and patent reform, governance and transparency in emerging economies, policing technologies, and energy and the environment.

Policy labs address problems for real clients, using analytic approaches that supplement traditional legal analysis. Typically, policy labs assist clients through empirical evidence that scopes a policy problem and assesses options and courses of action. The resulting deliverables reflect the needs of the client grounded in the law school’s belief that systematic examination of societal problems, informed by rigorous data analysis, can generate solutions to society’s most challenging public problems.

About Stanford Law School

Stanford Law School is one of the nation’s leading institutions for legal scholarship and education. Its alumni are among the most influential decision makers in law, politics, business, and high technology. Faculty members argue before the Supreme Court, testify before Congress, produce outstanding legal scholarship and empirical analysis, and contribute regularly to the nation’s press as legal and policy experts. Stanford Law School has established a model for legal education that provides rigorous interdisciplinary training, hands-on experience, global perspective, and focus on public service, spearheading a movement for change.