USDA should strategically expand list of climate-smart conservation practices

A top Department of Agriculture official is touting plans to expand the USDA’s list of climate-smart conservation practices eligible for $11.7 billion in federal funding – and the department should focus on efforts that have proven benefits for the climate.

Robert Bonnie, the USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation, recently said the department plans on expanding the climate-smart practice list. The funding is from the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, and is being provided through two of the department’s tentpole conservation programs. But EWG has shown that these programs have funded many practices that don’t have any clear climate benefits.

Agriculture made up at least 10 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2022, according to newly-released data from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the share could grow without major changes from farmers of what and how they farm. The IRA’s climate-smart conservation funding is critical to helping farmers reduce their emissions.

When expanding its climate-smart list, the department’s conservation arm, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, should focus on what’s funded by the Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP. Currently, only a very small amount of traditional conservation funding goes to the practices on that list, but all IRA money is supposed to go to them. Expanding the list with CSP practices that have proven climate benefits will ensure the IRA money benefits the climate, and that the traditional conservation spending will also benefit the climate after the IRA money has been spent.

Climate-smart agriculture funding

The NRCS pays farmers to adopt conservation practices – called enhancements for CSP – on working farmland and forest land. Two of its major programs are the CSP and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

For the past few years, the NRCS has maintained a list of climate-smart practices, a subset of the long list of agricultural conservation practices it funds through CSP and EQIP. The practices on this list are intended to cause “quantifiable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and/or increases in carbon sequestration.” 

The 2022 IRA set aside $19.5 billion – including $8.45 billion for EQIP, $3.25 billion for CSP, and the rest of the money for other programs – through fiscal year 2026 for agricultural conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in soil. In other words, this money is meant to fund the practices on the NRCS climate-smart list. 

But as EWG found in February, late last year the NRCS expanded its climate-smart list for EQIP for fiscal year 2024, adding many “provisional” EQIP practices, like “irrigation pipeline” and “animal waste facility covers,” with no data showing they have climate benefits. 

Instead of adding even more EQIP practices that might not reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in soil, Bonnie and the USDA should strategically expand the CSP list with enhancements that have proven climate benefits.

Climate-smart CSP enhancements

There are 100 CSP enhancements on the NRCS’ fiscal year 2024 climate-smart list, but only 2 percent of total CSP payments between 2018 and 2022 went to farmers for those enhancements. During that period, just $85.3 million out of total CSP payments of $3.9 billion went to enhancements on the climate-smart list. 

In 2022, EWG created a list of 207 CSP practices that have climate benefits. We found that 10 percent of total CSP funding, $406.9 million, went to these practices between 2018 and 2022. 

If the NRCS were to expand its climate-smart practice list to include all of the practices EWG identified as climate-smart, more money would go to farmers to implement practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in the soil, since the IRA funds would be directed toward them. 

Some of the enhancements that are on EWG’s list but not on the NRCS’ list include enhancements around conservation crop rotations, such as “leave standing grain crops unharvested to benefit wildlife” and “forage harvest to reduce water quality impacts by utilization of excess soil nutrients,” as well as those associated with cover crops like “use of soil health assessment to assist with development of cover crop mix to improve soil health.” 

These enhancements likely have quantifiable climate benefits. 

Data transparency issues with CSP payments

One reason why so little funding seems to go to practices on NRCS’ climate-smart list is because there is a major data transparency issue with how the USDA reports CSP funding. In the agency's responses to EWG’s Freedom of Information Act requests, it sorted the majority of CSP payments by land use – not by practice or enhancement.

In all, 78 percent of all CSP payments between 2018 and 2022 were made for annual payments categorized by land use like cropland or pasture, so we cannot know exactly which practices and enhancements most of this taxpayer money went to.

Because of this missing information, the top 10 listed enhancements made up 12 percent of all CSP payments. The top two enhancements from the data we received were to “reduce risk of pesticides in surface water by utilizing precision pesticide application techniques” and “reduce risks of nutrient losses to surface water by utilizing precision ag technologies.”

IRA funding for climate-smart conservation practices must be protected

Republicans in Congress have proposed giving the IRA funding designated for conservation to increase payments to farm subsidy programs instead, in the upcoming farm bill. 

But this funding should stay within the conservation programs and must be targeted toward practices and enhancements that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in soil, as the legislation intended. 

Farmers like participating in these conservation programs. In fact, every year more farmers apply for funding than there’s funding for. And unlike with farm subsidy programs, all farmers are eligible for conservation funding. 

Finally, sending the IRA funding to climate-smart conservation practices, as designed, can help farms reduce their emissions – imperative in this era of a rapidly accelerating climate crisis.

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