Climate change isn’t high priority for $1.2 billion USDA farm stewardship program

One of the Department of Agriculture’s largest farm stewardship programs doesn’t make a big enough priority of helping farmers reduce greenhouse gases – even though food and farming emissions keep rising and could make a climate crisis unavoidable.

The USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, provides $1.2 billion annually to help farmers deliver environmental benefits like improved air and water quality. But just a fraction of program spending in 2019 and 2020 went to efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, a new EWG analysis finds.

Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, lowering agriculture’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would still be necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe, according to experts in food, climate science, agriculture and sustainability.

Methane and nitrous oxide make up most of these emissions. Fertilizing crops grown for animal feed and ethanol produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Both livestock manure and cow burps emit methane, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

EQIP could do more to help, if the program were to make a priority of helping farmers tackle climate change. But EWG’s analysis of USDA data from 2019 and 2020 found:

  • In 2020, only 21.5 percent of EQIP spending went to practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, down from 22.7 percent in 2019.
  • In 2019 and 2020, more than $100 million went to EQIP practices, like animal waste storage facilities, that increase greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Much of the EQIP spending on practices that reduce emissions went to cover crops, which may only increase soil carbon temporarily if they are not used in more than one year.
  • Three-quarters -- or 24 of the 32 practices that may reduce emissions -- received less than $10 million each in funding each year. Of those, 19 received less than $1 million in 2019, and 18 received less than $1 million in 2020.
  • No EQIP funding reduces methane emissions from cow burps through better feed management – even though enteric methane is the biggest source of greenhouse gases from animal agriculture.

House and Senate leaders, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) successfully included $27 billion for farm practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Build Back Better bill that has passed the House and is pending in the Senate.

USDA’s ranking tool, called the Conservation Practice Physical Effects, or CPPE, matrix, provides a score between -5 and 5 for the impact of every EQIP-funded conservation practice on resources such as water and soil quality. A positive score means the practice is good for a resource – it helps prevent wind erosion or pesticides getting into surface water. A negative score means it is harmful.

EWG used USDA’s tool to develop a list of “climate smart” agricultural conservation EQIP practices that are good both for the climate and for the reduction of nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, that get into water. (See Table 1.)

We included practices on our list if they’ve been assigned a positive score by the USDA for both reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and cutting the amount of nutrients transported to surface water, or if they had a positive score for those two categories and a positive score for reducing nutrients transported to groundwater. Table 2 provides the descriptions of all 32 climate- and nutrient-smart EQIP practices on EWG’s list.

Table 1. EWG’s list of climate- and nutrient-smart EQIP practices

Climate/nutrient smart EQIP practices 2019 financial assistance 2020 financial assistance
Cover crop $126,013,513 $84,348,417
Pasture and hay planting $32,454,414 $32,329,485
Tree/shrub establishment $28,419,412 $29,289,247
Nutrient management $18,154,604 $28,462,459
Prescribed grazing $15,329,172 $18,150,643
Range planting $12,639,864 $10,530,643
Conservation cover $11,196,323 $11,039,889
Residue and tillage management, no till $10,075,880 $11,997,911
Grassed waterway $7,188,271 $5,877,484
Residue and tillage management, reduced till $6,190,220 $6,708,720
Conservation crop rotation $4,876,404 $7,273,300
Critical area planting $1,817,783 $1,559,770
Windbreak/shelterbelt establishment and renovation $1,498,402 $1,265,935
Riparian forest buffer $780,036 $945,280
Slavopasture $663,602 $463,350
Hedgegrow planting $598,228 $910,390
Field border $571,170 $280,119
Wetland restoration $392,214 $714,072
Wetland enhancement $246,137 $118,226
Multi-story cropping $160,789 $865,510
Riparian herbacous cover $149,174 $80,672
Constructed wetland $143,001 $4,936
Wetland creation $142,169 $316,778
Vegetative barrier $59,491 $86,082
Filter strip $29,180 $69,111
Alley cropping $8,935 $902
Contour buffer strips $7,450 $2,960
Contour orchard and other perennial crops $1,704 $5,815
Herbaceous wind barriers $22 $5,531
Wildlife habitat planting - $5,963,909
Feed management - -
Cross wind trap strips - -
Total $279,807,563 $259,667,739

EWG’s analysis of USDA spending also found that considerable funding goes to practices that do not benefit the climate. In 2019 and 2020 combined, more than $222 million in EQIP funds were used to upgrade irrigation pipelines and sprinklers, and $101.8 million funded animal waste storage facilities. These are practices that do not reduce greenhouse gases – and, in the case of waste storage facilities, produce emissions.

Table 2. Descriptions of climate- and nutrient-smart EQIP practices

Descriptions of climate- and nutrient-smart EQIP practices

“Alley cropping is planting trees or shrubs in sets of rows with crops or forages produced between the woody plants. Producers who practice alley cropping may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of improving crop or forage quality, reducing wind and water erosion, improving water quality and building soil health.” 

“Conservation cover is a permanent vegetative cover. Plants that produce high volumes of organic matter are recommended when this practice is applied to increase carbon sequestration and build soil health. Producers who plant conservation cover may generate co-benefits including improved water quality and strengthened benefits to wildlife or pollinator habitat.” 

“Conservation crop rotation is growing crops in a planned sequence on the same field over time. Producers who rotate crops may increase carbon sequestration while delivering the co-benefits of building soil health, reducing plant pest pressures, providing feed or forage for livestock and improving water quality.” 

“The residue and tillage management no-till/strip till/direct seed practice addresses the amount, orientation, and distribution of crop and other plant residue on the soil surface year-round. Crops are planted and grown in narrow slots or tilled strips established in the untilled seedbed of the previous crop.” 

“Planting orchards, vineyards, or other perennial crops so that all cultural operations are done on or near the contour.” 

“Contour buffer strips are strips of perennial vegetation alternated down the slope with wider cultivated strips that are farmed on the contour. Contour buffers strips are usually narrower than the cultivated strips.” 

“Cover crops are grasses, legumes and forbs planted for seasonal vegetative cover. Cover crops are not cash crops, but instead are planted to build soil health and carbon stocks by reducing erosion, incrementally increasing organic matter and building soil structure while reducing soil compaction. Producers who plant cover crops may also deliver co-benefits of improved water quality, suppressed weed pressure and broken pest cycles.” 

“Critical area planting establishes permanent vegetation on sites that have, or are expected to have, high erosion rates, and on sites that have conditions that prevent the establishment of vegetation with normal practices.” 

“Residue and tillage management, reduced till practice manages the amount, orientation, and distribution of crop and other plant residue on the soil surface year round while limiting the soil-disturbing activities used to grow and harvest crops in systems where the field surface is tilled prior to planting.” 

“Multi-story cropping is managing an overstory of trees or shrubs with understory plants that are separately managed for a variety of products. Producers who practice multi-story cropping may deliver co-benefits of improving biodiversity and building soil health.” 

“This practice establishes, enhances or renovates windbreaks, which are single or multiple rows of trees or shrubs planted in linear or curvilinear configurations. Producers who establish windbreaks may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of reducing erosion, protecting crops, livestock and buildings from wind-related damage, enhancing moisture management and improving ambient air quality.” 

“Silvopasture is the establishment and management of desired tree and forage species on the same land unit. Producers who practice silvopasture may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of providing forage, shade or shelter for livestock, reducing soil and wind erosion, improving water quality, increasing wildlife and pollinator habitat and building soil health.” 

“A field border is a strip of permanent vegetation established at the edge or around the perimeter of a cropland or pasture field. Producers who implement field borders may build perennial biomass and soil carbon stocks while delivering the co-benefits of improving water quality and providing habitat for wildlife or pollinators.” 

“Riparian herbaceous cover consists of grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, legumes or forbs that are tolerant of intermittent flooding or saturated soils and established as the dominant vegetation between upland and aquatic habitats. Land managers who establish riparian herbaceous cover may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of enhancing wildlife or pollinator habitat, improving water quality, reducing streambank erosion and establishing desired plant communities.” 

“A riparian forest buffer is an area covered by trees or shrubs that is located near, and generally uphill from, a body of water. Land managers who implement riparian forest buffers may generate carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while generating the co-benefits of improving water quality, restoring diversity of riparian plant communities, providing wildlife habitat and improving stream conditions for certain species.” 

“Filter strips are areas of herbaceous vegetation that remove contaminants from overland flow. Filter strips are generally established where environmentally sensitive areas need to be protected from nutrient, sediment, other suspended solids and other dissolved contaminants in runoff. Producers who implement filter strips may increase soil carbon and sequester carbon in perennial biomass while preventing nitrogen from entering water bodies. This may provide the co-benefits of improving water quality while also reducing indirect emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.” 

“A shaped or graded channel that is established with suitable vegetation to convey surface water at a non-erosive velocity using a broad and shallow cross section to a stable outlet.” 

“Establishing wildlife habitat by planting herbaceous vegetation or shrubs.” 

“Hedgerows are dense woody vegetation planted in a linear design to achieve a natural resource conservation purpose.” 

“Establishing adapted and compatible species, varieties, or cultivars of herbaceous plants suitable for pasture or hay production.” 

“Prescribed grazing is managing the harvest of vegetation with grazing or browsing animals to achieve specific ecological, economic and management goals. Producers who practice prescribed grazing may sequester carbon in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of enhancing or maintaining desired plant species for forage, improving water quality, increasing stocking rates and livestock vigor and building soil health.” 

“Range planting is the establishment of adapted perennial vegetation on range land. Producers who participate in range planting may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of supporting desired plant communities, providing or improving livestock forage, improving water quality and building soil health.” 

“Nutrient management enables producers to manage the rate, source, placement and timing of plant nutrients and soil amendments while reducing environmental impact. This conservation practice, and particularly applications that improve nitrogen use efficiency, such as use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, split applications, reduced application rates, and precision agriculture, may reduce nitrous oxide emissions while delivering the co-benefits of strengthening plant health and productivity, improving water quality, lowering input costs and improving or maintaining soil organic matter.” 

“Manipulating and controlling the quantity and quality of available nutrients, feedstuffs, or additives fed to livestock and poultry.” 

“Permanent strips of stiff, dense vegetation established along the general contour of slopes or across concentrated flow areas.” 

“Herbaceous vegetation established in narrow strips within the field to reduce wind speed and wind Erosion.” 

“This conservation practice establishes woody vegetation by planting seedlings or cuttings, direct seeding or through natural regeneration. Land managers who establish trees or shrubs may increase carbon sequestration in perennial biomass and soils while delivering the co-benefits of maintaining or increasing plant diversity, establishing wildlife or pollinator habitat, reducing erosion and improving water quality.” 

“An artificial wetland ecosystem with hydrophytic vegetation for biological treatment of water.” 

“The return of a wetland and its functions to a close approximation of its original condition as it existed prior to disturbance on a former or degraded wetland site.” 

“A wetland created on a site location that was historically not a wetland.” 

“The augmentation of wetland functions beyond the original natural conditions on a former, degraded, or naturally functioning wetland site; sometimes at the expense of other functions.” 

“Herbaceous cover established in one or more strips typically perpendicular to the most erosive wind events.” 

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