Moving US Agriculture Towards Net Zero: Can It Be Done? By Annie Roberts

Farmers have played a significant role in the climate crisis. From raising livestock to fertilizer applications to tilling fields, sources of greenhouse gas emissions abound in the agriculture sector. Despite their contributions to climate change, farmers are also uniquely vulnerable to its impact. Whether its catastrophic flooding, endless droughts, American farmers are already facing the consequences of global warming. In 2019, farmers saw the wettest 12 months on record, resulting in 19.4 million unplantable acres[1]. Without widespread action, these issues will only worsen. In order to move U.S. agriculture towards net zero, Congress should immediately pass legislation that improves emissions reporting, accounts for diverse sources of emissions, and mandates aggressive emission cuts.

Congress should begin by ending emissions reporting exemptions for agriculture. The agricultural industry has consistently received exemptions from emissions reporting requirements. In 2008, President Bush passed a midnight rule granting farmers an exemption from reporting animal waste air emissions required by Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act [2]. Bush’s EPA claimed that “the reports are unnecessary because, in most cases, a federal response is impractical and unlikely”[3]. The final rule was eventually struck down by the United States Court of Appeals in 2017, but was quickly replaced by the FARM Act in 2018, which also allowed air emissions from animal waste to be exempted from reporting requirements[4]. These exemptions must be overturned. Without a clear baseline and consistent reporting, it is impossible to be sure that climate mitigation efforts are working.

Another priority area for Congress should be fixing accounting discrepancies in the EPA’s annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. According to the EPA’s inventory, agriculture is responsible for 9.3% of the greenhouse gases produced in the United States[5]. Most of the emissions come from soil management practices like fertilizer applications and digestion from ruminant animals[6]. Many experts suspect, however, that current measuring systems underestimate agriculture’s contributions to global warming[7]. They charge that greenhouse gas inventories conducted by the EPA often overlook emissions from soil disturbance, land conversion, and fertilizer production[8]. These concerns appear justified when weighted against global estimates of agriculture emissions done by the organizations like CGIAR, which place agriculture as responsible for 19% to 29% of total emissions[9]. To improve estimations, Congress could introduce new legislation requiring EPA to expand the scope of their calculations to include diverse sources of agricultural emissions.

Despite persistent reporting and accounting issues, momentum has been gaining at the federal level to finally tackle agricultural emissions. In February 2020, Secretary of Agriculture announced ambitious new objectives for USDA. The agency’s 2020 Agriculture Innovation Agenda set a goal to double production while also reducing greenhouse gases by 50% by 2050[10]. Recent marker bills have also shown recent willingness to adopt climate friendly practices. In the same month, Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine introduced the Agriculture Resilience Act to the House of Representatives. The Act accelerates the timeline for emissions reductions, with the goal reducing greenhouse gases by 50% by 2030 and going net zero by 2040[11]. The Bill’s priorities also include increasing investment in sustainable agriculture research, promoting soil health, farmland conservation, and on-farm energy innovation. It proposes targeting emissions reductions by creating agriculture carbon credits, reducing food waste, and raising pastured livestock.

In order to facilitate the changes outlined in the Agriculture Innovation Agenda and Representative Pingree’s bill, the emissions reporting exemptions must end and full accounting of emissions associated with the entire agriculture supply chain should become the new standard for greenhouse gas inventories. Bills like the Agriculture Resilience Act should form the foundation for emissions reductions and be expanded upon in the next Farm Bill. With the right policies and support, America’s farmers can pivot from part of the problem to an integral component of the climate solution.

 

 

 

[1] Irfan, Umair. “2019 Was a Brutal Year for American Farmers.” Vox, December 27, 2019. https://www.vox.com/2019/12/27/21038054/american-farmer-2019-climate-change-agriculture-flood-trade-war-corn-soy.

[2] Federal Register. “CERCLA/EPCRA Administrative Reporting Exemption for Air Releases of Hazardous Substances From Animal Waste at Farms,” December 18, 2008. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2008/12/18/E8-30003/cerclaepcra-administrative-reporting-exemption-for-air-releases-of-hazardous-substances-from-animal.

[3] “United States Court of Appeals FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.” Biotechnology Law Report 25, no. 3 (June 2006): 363–65. https://doi.org/10.1089/blr.2006.25.363.

[4] US EPA, OLEM. “CERCLA and EPCRA Reporting Requirements for Air Releases of Hazardous Substances from Animal Waste at Farms.” Overviews and Factsheets. US EPA, September 5, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/epcra/cercla-and-epcra-reporting-requirements-air-releases-hazardous-substances-animal-waste-farms.

[5] US EPA, DRAFT Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2018

[6] See “DRAFT Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2018”

[7] “Why Agriculture’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are Almost Always Underestimated.” Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2019/12/02/5-reasons-agricultures-greenhouse-gas-emissions-are-usually-underestimated/#30c84c1a6ac8.

[8] Croft, Genevieve K. “Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks in U.S. Agriculture,” n.d., 3.

 

[9] “Direct Agricultural Emissions – Big Facts.” Accessed March 26, 2020. https://ccafs.cgiar.org/bigfacts/#theme=food-emissions&subtheme=direct-agriculture.

[10] “Secretary Perdue Announces New Innovation Initiative for USDA.” Accessed March 26, 2020. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2020/02/20/secretary-perdue-announces-new-innovation-initiative-usda.

[11] U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree. “Congresswoman Pingree Introduces the Agriculture Resilience Act to Promote Farmer-Driven Climate Solutions,” February 26, 2020. https://pingree.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3267

 

5 thoughts on “Moving US Agriculture Towards Net Zero: Can It Be Done? By Annie Roberts

  1. This is a great explanation of a pressing problem. Wholly accounting for the sources of greenhouse gas emissions is an extremely necessary first step to solving the global warming dilemma. Without accurate base assumptions by which to operate, it is unlikely that effective policy can be implemented. As you mentioned, Bush (and ultimately the US Farm Bill) initially opted out of farm-related emissions reporting because he doubted federal action would result. I gather this stems from a desire to protect the farm economy. That said, congress still needs this information to pass relevant legislation; they may need to compensate for farm emissions by passing legislation in other areas. The lack of accurate information might prevent other free-market solutions from developing as well. Neglecting proper emissions reporting is irresponsible and could potentially hinder progress in reducing agriculture (or other) emissions.

    I was hopeful to see that the USDA has set new goals and targets to rectify this problem through the 2020 Agriculture Innovation Agenda. That said, their goals are ambitious. Though I am not well-versed in the agriculture nor economics, achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while still doubling production seems unlikely. However, the agenda does seem more comprehensive than other similar proposals made by other politicians. For instance, I appreciate that the agenda plans to set specific benchmarks and promises to integrate new, innovative technologies into farming practices in order to achieve their goal.

    Despite the challenges that lay ahead for the agriculture sector, I appreciate this post for bringing an important issue to light that advocates for executable and impactful policy!

  2. I really like your article and its comprehensive examination of how to best drive emissions reductions in the agricultural sector. I completely agree with you on the need for enforcing strict emissions monitoring and reporting from farmers (and eliminating reporting exemptions). A number of information barriers arise when we do not enforce proper reporting by industrial farms. Effective policy requires a thorough and accurate understanding of the problem (and sources) being addressed, and without us having a complete picture of the full extent of emissions from agriculture, I doubt that we will make significant progress in reducing the sector’s emissions. Unfortunately, I think that there is a significant barrier to enforcing emissions reporting due to the lobbying power of industrial agriculture. But that said, there is no excuse for underreporting emissions, and I truly do hope that politicians come around to supporting increased transparency in agricultural emissions reporting in the future (particularly considering agriculture is especially vulnerable to climate change).

    Looking to the goals of the 2020 Agriculture Innovation Agenda, I too think that it is very ambitious. My primary concern for achieving emissions reductions is associated with the consumption habits of Americans; in particular, I struggle to see how agriculture could cut its emissions in half without Americans first changing the foods they regularly eat. For example, production of red meat is very carbon-intensive and contributes a significant amount of emissions to the agricultural sector’s total. I often wonder whether reducing agricultural emissions should be the goal of the farmers or consumers. It will be interesting to see how the mix of crops and livestock changes as we increasingly work to reduce agricultural emissions in the future. Moreover, if Americans, as I would expect, are largely reluctant to change their consumption habits, I’m interested in what role technology will play in driving reductions. For example, the use of methane emissions from say, cow farms, can be captured and used as a source of energy in the form of biogas. Such solutions could help drive emissions reductions (in not only agriculture but also the power sector) without requiring consumers to significantly change their consumption habits. I anticipate that large reductions will require both technological change on the producer side and behavioral change on the consumer side, but I am curious to see which plays a more prominent role in reducing emissions, particularly if agricultural output significantly increases in the future.

    There are undoubtedly a number of barriers to reducing emissions from agriculture, and I think you did a great job in digging into the root of the problem (i.e. that we don’t understand/account for the full extent of agricultural emissions). Though there is a long road ahead, I think increasing transparency in emissions reporting is definitely the first step in driving more sustainable agriculture. Thank you for the great post!

  3. Killer article, Annie! I loved the comprehensive walkthrough of the past farming legislation regarding reporting, accounting, and emitting. One could see the trend of poor emission reporting and a lack of accountability has really caused turmoil within U.S. calculations of agriculture emissions. The electricity sector always seems to dominate greenhouse gas emission conversations, but many often forget or miscalculate the effects of the agricultural industry as seen here. I had always been under the impression that both the electric power sector and agricultural sectors each accounted for 25% of the U.S. emissions. It was startling to see the EPA’s Inventory report hovering around 10% for the U.S. agriculture contributions. In addition to the accounting practices, I enjoyed how you framed the issue. Most conversations regarding the U.S. agricultural industry’s emissions are restricted to methane from cows, farm equipment emissions, food decay emissions, and generally how the industry pollutes. Your first paragraph reframed the conversation by showcasing how farmers are affected by changing weather patterns due to climate change and will not be able to be as productive nor mitigate emissions. Identifying the plight of farmers and intentionally recogozing how must be a large part of the agricultural solution is such an important nuance (especially given the Agriculture Department’s ambitious 2020 agenda). Recalculating emissions, revamping reporting, reframing the agricultural issues, and mandating for steeper emission cuts will together make for a strong strategry for addressing the greenhouse emissions from U.S. agriculture.

  4. It was nice to have a potentially complicated subject laid out so clearly, and this is definitely an area where we need an informed citizenry that can pressure Congress to do the right thing. I agree with you completely that agriculture should not be exempt from reporting standards, we need all the data we can get to craft good and effective policy. Sadly, the agricultural industry is one of the most powerful in Congress, and even with complete Democratic control, I wouldn’t see this as something they would possibly consider. Things that are seen as assisting farmers and Big Ag do have a chance though, which is why I think Pingree’s bill might be the way to go, as long as farmers are being heavily subsidized to use sustainable practices. I do think some fairly unpopular measures might need to take place to have the greatest effect in lowering emissions, notably a meat tax or major subsidies for plant-based meat alternatives that make traditional meat sources uncompetitive. No matter what window dressing we put on our factory farms, they will still emit huge amounts of carbon and take up enormous tracks of land doing it, land that could be better served storing carbon in its natural state.

  5. The subject of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agricultural practices has certainly become a hot-button issue for environmental movements in the United States. This past semester, I was personally involved in a sustainability project on campus regarding Duke’s food emissions and communicating the impact of agricultural practices and purchases to students. Calculating emissions from agricultural products are considered “scope 3” calculations. Scope 3 emissions are considered the most difficult for any institution, corporation, or government body to calculate because of their indirect nature. As you mentioned, the complex life cycle of the food industry, from fertilizer production, to farm practices, to supermarket, make calculating emissions incredibly difficult. Duke itself doesn’t currently track food emissions in its Climate Action Plan for that very reason (https://sustainability.duke.edu/metrics/climate). For this project, my team analyzed a small number of online carbon calculators for food. The data and format of these analyses varies widely, and are especially dependent on what underlying LCA reports, regional statistical and transport data, and municipal waste assumptions are made across the U.S. Despite the disadvantages to the most recent Farm Bill excluding these emissions, as you said, I doubt how accurate any national estimates would actually be.
    In the interim of Congressional stalemate on climate action (and given the current deadlock in terms of public opinion on climate change), I think grassroots movements, powerful private institutions such as Duke, and local or state governments will be forced to step in terms of information provision to tackle human behavior change. Research indicates that, in terms of emissions, the largest impact an individual can make is based on food type/choice (not organic vs non-organic, local, etc.). The key is to have Americans reduce protein consumption from meat sources in favor of plant based sources. Targeted campaigns could highlight the compounded benefits from reducing meat consumption; lowered risk of heart disease, reduced costs for purchasing food (in some cases), less air and water pollution from CAFO waste runoff, just to name a few. Concentrated efforts by state governments, with public pressure, might work to deconstruct the centralization of animal husbandry in CAFO’s and farming practices that contribute to mass pollution and emissions. This might work by enacting requirements for current CAFO’s to retrofit closed-loop manure/gas collection for energy production. Perhaps Duke and other research organizations can begin efforts to develop state emissions portfolios for agricultural industries, and build a platform to accelerate accounting and action proposed in the Agricultural Resilience Act.

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