Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions could surge without climate guardrails

Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. farming could surge if House Republicans get their way. They’re fighting now to scrap legislative guardrails designed to ensure that Department of Agriculture funding goes to climate-smart practices that reduce emissions and build soil carbon.

The practices can and do accomplish that goal. For example, a 15 percent lower allocation of spending on cover crops could result in the release of more than 100,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, according to a new EWG analysis of USDA data.

Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee released a farm bill proposal last week that would scrap the guardrails, which currently require that $20 billion in USDA funds be spent on climate-smart projects, such as cover crops, that cut emissions. The restrictions on how the funds can be spent were set in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA.

By contrast, the proposal released last week by Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats would retain the guardrails, ensuring the funds go to practices that help fight the climate crisis. Curbing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions is vital, because they represent about 10 percent of all U.S. emissions. And in the absence of any action, that figure could rise.

Capturing emissions

To measure the effect of removing the guardrails, EWG used a model developed by the USDA and Colorado State University known as the Carbon Management and Emissions Tool, or COMET-Planner. The data from this model show that just a 15 percent reduction in crop cover acreage could lead to 101,880 tons of agricultural greenhouse gases getting emitted into the atmosphere.

Without these guardrails, that’s a real possibility.

Farmers can use cover crops to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It is released when farmers apply chemical fertilizers. So if cover crop acreage fell by that 15 percent, nitrous oxide emissions from Corn Belt farmers alone could increase by the equivalent of 1,900 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

And that’s just one climate-smart practice that could lose funding under the House Republicans’ proposal. Scrapping the guardrails would jeopardize funding for other climate-smart practices, too, potentially leading to even more greenhouse gas increases.

Despite the IRA increase in USDA climate-smart funding, more than half the applicants for USDA conservation funding get turned down because of unexpectedly high demand.  Removing the protection the IRA affords would throw up another barrier to assistance for farmers to hurdle, since less funding would be available for practices with increasingly high demand.

To fight the climate catastrophe, agriculture’s emissions must be reined in. The industry’s share of 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – or more – could soar to more than 30 percent by 2050. Over half of U.S. agriculture’s emissions are in the form of nitrous oxide.

Stewardship practices

EWG previously found that the widespread adoption of six simple farm stewardship practices by corn farmers in the Midwest could dramatically reduce nitrous oxide emissions. 

If implemented across the region, crop rotation, use of cover crops, changes to tillage practices and targeted planting of strips of grasses and trees could reduce Corn Belt nitrous oxide emissions by more than 4 million metric tons. Such a shift would provide the same climate benefit as taking almost 1 million gasoline-powered cars off the road.

If Congress removes the IRA climate-smart guardrails, the USDA will likely revert to its past system, when just one-fifth of its conservation funding flowed to practices that reduced greenhouse gas emissions.


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