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Building Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry

We’re building on our progress for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production and the land sector.

Last year, USDA laid out its ambitious and comprehensive approach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production and the land sector by more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. That’s the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, or offsetting the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes last year. USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry aim to work closely with farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and rural communities to implement voluntary, incentive-based practices that improve environmental conditions while also preparing these communities for the impacts of climate change. This includes reducing carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions through practices to improve soil health, nutrient application, and manure management.  Additionally, the Building Blocks promote forest growth and retention to bolster our carbon sink and scale-up on-farm renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Today, we’re building on that progress. Secretary Vilsack just announced a new comprehensive implementation plan and roadmap to achieve these reductions in partnership with farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and other partners. Over the next three years, USDA will work to lay a strong foundation for achieving these goals by supporting conservation measures, conducting outreach and training with stakeholders and staff, and continuing investment in research for climate-smart practices. The roadmap lays the foundation for continuous improvement and ambition consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. 

I cannot overstate the importance of this work. I am reminded each day of the challenges facing our country’s producers from wildfire and drought to extreme heat and flooding, all threats exacerbated by climate change. Both President Obama and Secretary Vilsack recognize the important role that our forests and agricultural lands play in addressing the challenge of climate change, and that is why, as part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, we have made it a priority to work with rural communities to make them more resilient against climate impacts. 

To further the goals of the initiative, this fiscal year, USDA, through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program, will invest approximately $300 million in practices that provide climate benefits, including a targeted allocation of $72.3 million specifically for practices that advance the Building Block goals. For instance, in Arkansas, funds will be applied to soil health, improved stewardship of nutrients, and irrigation water improvements that will reduce net emissions, while also making operations more resilient and productive. USDA’s Climate Hubs have developed eight regional vulnerability assessments to help farmers respond and adapt to a changing climate. Finally, the Administration has made investments to improve our knowledge and understanding of our land-sector sources and sinks.

At the same time, I am inspired by the work that is already being done across the country. Over the last year, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the great work being done to implement sustainable agricultural practices. In June 2015, companies and organizations including Unilever, Field to Market, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Coca-Cola Company, National Corn Growers Association, Walmart, PepsiCo, the Nature Conservancy, and Environmental Defense Fund committed to making their supply chains more sustainable. 

And at the end of last year, we recognized 12 Champions of Change from across the United States who are leading efforts in sustainable agriculture that benefit soil, air, and water quality while also helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

One of the Champions is Larry Cundall, a rancher from Glendo, Wyoming who manages a herd of several hundred cattle on 10,000 acres. As an innovative steward of the land, Larry has instituted conservation practices that decrease water use and protect soil health. Specifically, he uses strategic grazing rotation and planted shelterbelts to reduce the soil erosion.  Anita Adalja, another Champion, is working within urban areas of Washington, D.C. to bring food to low food access communities while also implementing sustainable growing practices such as planting cover crops, limiting soil tillage, and rotating crops. 

But there’s more to be done. While the agriculture sector only accounts for 9% of gross domestic emissions, it represents 32% of our methane emissions and 83% of our nitrous oxide emissions. With greater use of existing technologies and new innovative practices, we can drive down emissions and help producers continue to provide the food, fiber and energy needs of a growing global population.  

Additionally, we must strive to maintain our forests, grasslands and other natural resources that are critical for absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Currently, our nation’s forests and grasslands absorb 13% of our emissions each year. As we look to the future, the land-sector will absorb anywhere from 15 -22% of our annual emissions in 2030 – as we achieve emissions reductions elsewhere in the economy. Taking this trend and extending it to 2050, the land-sector will be an ever increasingly crucial buffer.

We remain dedicated to taking bold steps, such as those affirmed today, that put the United States on track to reduce net emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Looking further out, the progress of the USDA Building Blocks program will play a key role in our efforts to cut carbon pollution and address the impacts of climate change to leave a better planet for future generations.