ST. LOUIS (AP) — The climate deal reached last week by Senate Democrats could reduce the amount of greenhouse gases American farmers produce by expanding programs that help sequester carbon in the soil, funding research that focuses climate and reduce the abundant methane emissions from cows.
The bill includes more than $20 billion to improve agriculture’s environmental impact, primarily by expanding existing USDA programs that help farmers switch to better practices. Farmers would be paid to improve the health of their soil, withstand extreme weather and protect their land if the bill goes into effect.
The roughly $370 billion deal on climate and energy spending will bring the country closer to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, according to new analysis. That’s something many scientists say is important, and one that President Joe Biden has promised. Senator Joe Manchin, DW. Va., a longtime holdout on climate legislation, has passed measures that will benefit electric vehicles, renewable energy and climate-friendly agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for 11% of the country’s global warming emissions.
The funding will expand programs favored by both environmental groups and the agricultural sector, said Ben Thomas, who focuses on agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“They’re voluntary, they’re incentive-based, they get results in terms of implementing conservation practices on working lands,” Thomas said. “It’s great to see.”
Thomas said historically, the agricultural sector has not aggressively addressed its contribution to climate change, but that reluctance has changed in recent years and more money will accelerate progress. There are many possibilities, he said.
“It’s worth taking very, very seriously,” Thomas said.
Cows belch a huge amount of methane, and agriculture is responsible for more than a third of human-caused methane emissions, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. This is one way that people’s diets — whether they’re high in meat or dairy — contribute to the build-up of greenhouse gases. The bill directs funds to change what cows eat to reduce those emissions.
On farms, soil can retain or sequester carbon if left undisturbed and covered by a crop. Money from the bill would expand programs that help farmers till their soil less, implement climate-friendly crop rotation practices and plant non-harvest crops that improve soil health.
“Historic funding validates the fact that these practices are important,” said Ranjani Prabhakar, an agriculture and climate policy expert at the environmental group Earthjustice.
Cover crops, for example, are only used by a fraction of farmers. If their use tripled — from about 5% of cropland to 15% — it could remove the equivalent of 14 megatons of carbon dioxide annually, about New Hampshire’s total annual emissions, according to Kevin Karl, a food and climate for the floods. researcher at Columbia University.
“The adoption rate is so low,” Karl said. “There are many potential improvements.”
Federal officials already offer farmers help with various environmental issues, such as irrigation and fertilizer use. One program helps fund farmland conservation work.
Dan Sheafer works in nitrogen research with the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association and operates a 20-acre farm. He plants crops and keeps soil disturbance to a minimum – practices that benefit soil health and reduce soil erosion. But he said cover crops also have drawbacks, requiring farmers who want an environmental benefit to change their practices.
“There’s just more time to do cover crops,” he said.
The bill also includes money for research. While it is clear that proper soil management can sequester carbon, we need to know more about important questions such as how long sequestered carbon remains in soil.
Kaiyu Guan, a professor focused on climate and agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, said some people think farmers are not paying enough attention to climate change.
“I think farmers should not be blamed, but incentives should be given,” Guan said. “Not only are they doing this to be part of the solution to help the climate, but they’re doing it to help their land.”
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