What exactly is climate-smart agriculture’?

The new climate law will direct big bucks toward regenerative farming practices. But is that good climate policy?
By Michael Grunwald

  • Link copied to clipboard
A man stands near livestock on a hilly farm
The Mattole Valley Sungrown regenerative farm in Honeydew, California (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

This much is clear: The Biden administration is committed to climate-smart agriculture.

In his very first week in office, President Joe Biden’s sweeping executive order on the climate crisis directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to encourage adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices,” and Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack both talked up climate-smart farming at the Glasgow climate summit last November. In February, Vilsack launched an unprecedented $1 billion grant program for climate-smart commodities,” and in August, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act gave the USDA an unfathomable $20 billion to fund deployment of climate-smart practices.”

This is less clear: What does the administration mean by climate-smart”?

It’s an important question, because agriculture and the deforestation that makes room for it generate one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions. To meet the Paris targets for 2050, the agriculture sector somehow needs to reduce those emissions by 75 percent while increasing food production by more than 50 percent. Agriculture accounts for only one-ninth of U.S. greenhouse emissions — partly because America’s other sectors emit so much, partly because most deforestation happens abroad, partly because U.S. agriculture is the most efficient on earth — but it’s still a major climate problem. And unlike electricity or transportation, it’s a climate problem we’ve barely even begun to try to solve.

Climate-smart agriculture” may have started out as a political catchphrase, but it’s about to become an extremely lucrative business. USDA is now preparing to announce the winners of that $1 billion grant program, perhaps as early as this week, and it has begun studying options for the new $20 billion, which it has significant flexibility to decide how to spend. Showering farmers with cash is an American political tradition, and one thing that’s certainly clear is that Biden plans to use carrots rather than sticks to promote his climate agenda in farm country.

Farmers get really, really nervous about climate policy when they think it’s top-down regulations, something being done to them,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation. But when it’s voluntary, collaborative, incentives-based, folks are interested. Making sure this stuff can pencil out for producers is just critical.”

Of course, the atmosphere doesn’t notice whether climate policies pencil out economically for farmers; it’s only affected by whether they reduce heat-trapping emissions. And at times, the Biden team has seemed to equate climate-smart agriculture” with regenerative agriculture,” an increasingly popular but scientifically controversial approach that aims to sequester more carbon in soils by farming in greater harmony with nature. The president put in an unexpected plug for soil-protecting cover crops” during his first address to Congress, and his administration has promoted conservation tillage,” rotational grazing” and other regenerative practices designed to rebuild soils and increase soil carbon as well.

Globally, extraordinary momentum is building behind regenerative agriculture — including the United Nations–supported, celebrity-studded Save Soil movement; food conglomerates such as General Mills, Cargill and Danone; fledgling carbon markets that provide financial rewards for emissions-reducing practices; environmental groups disgusted by conventional farming; and even the new King of the United Kingdom. But although there’s solid evidence that regenerative practices can improve soil health and reduce erosion, there’s not yet much evidence they can reliably and permanently sequester carbon underground or mitigate climate change — while there’s plenty of evidence that other practices unrelated to soil carbon can reduce emissions.

In an interview, Bonnie previewed a kind of all-of-the-above approach to climate-smart agriculture, talking up everything from feed additives and anaerobic digesters that could reduce methane emissions at feedlots and dairies, to high-tech irrigation projects and other productivity-enhancing solutions that could increase crop and livestock yields, to wildfire management and tree-planting programs that could protect and expand above-ground carbon sinks. He also acknowledged the scientific questions swirling around soil sequestration, vowing to place a heavy emphasis on measurement and verification of below-ground carbon gains.

Still, the administration is obviously enthusiastic about paying farmers and ranchers to focus on soil carbon, and its decisions about how many eggs to place in the regenerative basket could have major climate implications. Bonnie noted that since rebuilding soil can enhance the resilience of fields and pastures to extreme droughts and other climate disasters, it can be climate-smart no matter how much carbon it sequesters. He also stressed that climate policy has never focused on agriculture before, so this will be an opportunity for experimentation.

USDA received $20 billion worth of applications for its $1 billion commodity grant program, which Bonnie sees as powerful evidence that the agricultural community wants to be part of the climate solution — at least as long as Uncle Sam is footing the bill. He also served as an undersecretary to Vilsack during the Obama administration’s climate wars, when rural America was in revolt over cap-and-trade,” and he says that even though farmers and ranchers are still mostly Republican, they’re no longer reflexively hostile to the climate issue.

There’s still skepticism about climate policy, but the conversations about whether climate change is happening have vanished,” Bonnie said. Now it’s: OK, we’ll work with you. Let’s find things that work for ag.’”

What’s the best way to reduce the climate impact of agriculture?

First, the administration should find things that work for the climate. So what kinds of things would those be?

Well, I did propose a three-part strategy for decarbonizing the food system last month: accelerate alternative proteins, attack food waste and invest in agricultural innovation. Unfortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act didn’t address meatless meat or food waste, and a $1.7-billion boost for agricultural research got stripped out of the bill. I’ve also proposed weaning farm country off its addiction to climate-killing biofuels, but Washington never takes goodies away from farmers. Biden’s new law actually includes several new biofuels giveaways: a lucrative new sustainable aviation fuel” tax credit, an extension of the biodiesel tax credit, massive subsidies for capturing carbon at corn ethanol plants, and a $500 billion handout for biofuels infrastructure.

So that’s suboptimal. Annoyingly, despite the worldwide reach of Canary Media and the Climavores podcast, I don’t have as much political clout as the farm lobby.

What’s also suboptimal is that Congress funneled most of the climate-smart agriculture funding through existing conservation programs that have been much more effective at shoveling cash to farmers than reducing emissions.

For example, the Inflation Reduction Act will pour an extra $8.45 billion into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which in theory helps finance eco-friendly activities, but in practice has mostly financed ordinary farm activities. The most common use of EQIP funds is for fences, not generally considered a vital climate solution. A large percentage of EQIP dollars support the construction of farm buildings, water tanks and other structures, as well as infrastructure for confined-animal feeding operations that most environmentalists despise. Farm conservation programs are perennially underfunded and oversubscribed, but if the Biden administration merely uses the new money to help more farmers do the same things, it will squander a unique opportunity to move the climate needle.

That said, Congress did direct USDA to prioritize actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and emphasized that its goal is not to extend the status quo. The Inflation Reduction Act language about EQIP even recommends a specific push for feed additives that can reduce methane from cattle burps and farts, a technology that is not yet approved for use in the U.S. but could one day shrink the climate impact of beef and dairy.

To return to the question at the top of this section, there are three basic approaches to making agriculture less of a climate problem. One is directly reducing emissions on farms and ranches, including methane from gassy cattle, rice fields and manure stored in lagoons; nitrous oxide from fertilizer and manure deposited in pastures; and carbon dioxide from tractors and other fossil-fueled equipment. Another is increasing crop and livestock yields in order to produce more food with less land, which would indirectly reduce emissions from deforestation by limiting agricultural expansion. The third is sequestering more carbon on farms and ranches, not only in soils but in trees and other vegetation.

Bonnie said the administration is committed to all three approaches, and the White House does list all three in its Inflation Reduction Act fact sheet, but the details will matter a lot. The feds could boost yields by helping farmers buy more fertilizer and other chemicals, but that could increase on-farm emissions. Or the feds could promote more diverse crop rotations and organic techniques that might reduce emissions from chemicals and store more carbon, but if they reduce yields, they’ll require more land to be cleared to make the same amount of food. Even basic conservation efforts that take farmland or strips of farmland out of production can hurt the climate if they induce more land-clearing to replace the lost food elsewhere.

It can get complicated. But it’s not all complicated, and it’s worth spotlighting the solutions that are relatively straightforward.

Smarter fertilizer use, precision agriculture and other high-tech solutions

Here’s a crazy fact: Only half the world’s nitrogen fertilizers (which are usually manufactured from fossil fuels) actually end up fertilizing crops. The rest escape into the environment, where they pollute rivers, aquifers and streams, create a dead zone the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined in the Gulf of Mexico, and foul the air with nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Here’s a simple idea: Let’s not waste so much fertilizer! It’s expensive for farmers, especially lately, and it’s a disaster for the planet.

In fact, we already have proven ways to get more nitrogen into plants and less into the environment. Some farmers apply slow-release fertilizer,” which gives soils more time to absorb nutrients and helps reduce runoff. Many American farmers also have self-driving tractors that use GPS technology and machine learning to apply the optimal amount of fertilizer in the fields where it’s needed.

It would be climate-smart to spread those technologies as widely as possible. And there are many other agricultural practices we already know can help.

High-tech tractors are just one example of precision agriculture” solutions that can meld digital technology with satellite technology to optimize irrigation, pesticide and herbicide application, livestock feeding and other farm activities to maximize yields while minimizing resources. Solid separation” and other manure management techniques can reduce emissions from feedlots, while drawdowns and other water management techniques can reduce emissions from flooded rice fields. Planting trees in pastures provides carbon storage and shade for cattle in a warming world — and there’s $1.5 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for planting trees. Installing solar panels on the rooftops of barns is a straight-up climate win.

Those are no-regrets solutions, and the administration should help get them deployed as quickly and widely as possible. Unfortunately, even universal deployment of those proven no-brainers wouldn’t eradicate agricultural emissions.

That means the USDA will have to deploy some more experimental solutions as well, and it will have to document which experiments pan out. The Bay Area firm Pivot Bio sells alternative fertilizers that use microbes to help crops extract nitrogen from the air instead of dumping expensive and environmentally destructive chemicals on top of them. Researchers have found that chemical nitrification inhibitors” or even grasses bred for similar purposes can prevent manure left in pastures from turning into nitrous oxide. Why not finance a huge demonstration project to see if my beloved pongamia trees can keep producing higher-yield soybean equivalents without chemicals or irrigation on marginal farmland?

And yes, it makes sense to run regenerative experiments as well. So far, the hype over carbon farming, in books, workshops and the Woody Harrelson–narrated documentary Kiss the Ground, has far outstripped its results. The global 4 Per 1000” movement got its name from the notion that increasing the carbon content of the world’s agricultural soils by just 0.4% could basically solve the climate crisis. That may be true, because there’s an awful lot of agricultural soil; the problem is figuring out how to increase its carbon content.

Still, it’s worth testing whether forms of rotational grazing” and other holistic management” of livestock might increase carbon in pastures without depressing yields. That wasn’t the case when I visited the climate activist Tom Steyer’s regenerative beef ranch, but maybe there’s a better way. The scientific evidence that reducing and eliminating tillage can increase soil carbon does not match the hype, but again, it’s worth trying to find ways to increase soil carbon that don’t just rely on increasing nutrients. There is $300 million in the new climate law for USDA to spend on quantifying carbon sequestration, and Bonnie said that should help reveal what works and what doesn’t.

The best answer to the skeptics is: Hey, we’re serious about measuring and monitoring,’” Bonnie said. We know we have a lot to learn.”

Learning is good, and since agricultural soils already hold more carbon than the atmosphere, it would be very good to learn how to get them to hold even more. But the debate over climate-smart agriculture often seems to assume that more soil carbon is the only solution, and we’ve already learned that’s not true.

The world needs to hurry up and produce a lot more food with a lot fewer emissions, and we should not assume, as this week’s most prominent newsmaker said shortly before his recent job change, that the alternative to a regenerative future is too grim to contemplate.” We should constantly contemplate alternatives and fund the ones that look promising.

Michael Grunwald is a bestselling author and award-winning journalist who was a staff writer for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Time magazine and Politico Magazine. He is writing a book about the race to feed the world without frying the world.