The Department of Agriculture said Wednesday that it would set up a data collection and monitoring network to measure greenhouse gas emissions and determine how much carbon can be sequestered using certain agricultural practices.
Using $300 million in Reduced Inflation Act funding, the network will help quantify the results of so-called regenerative or climate-smart agricultural practices, a cornerstone of the department’s approach to addressing global warming. The research and data being collected will also be crucial in measuring progress on President Biden’s goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.
“This is not just about promoting climate-smart agriculture, it’s not just about promoting the right science,” Tom Vilsack, agriculture secretary, said at a press conference Tuesday before the announcement. “It is also about expanding the sources of income for small and medium producers.”
The Cut Inflation Act, an expansionary climate, tax and health measure that Mr. Biden signed into law last year, provided some $20 billion to shore up existing farm conservation programs that encouraged practices like growing crops of cover and not till the land. The department has also provided billions in additional funding for agricultural projects that reduce emissions, in part by capturing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere and storing it as carbon in the soil.
But skeptics have warned that the effectiveness of these farming methods in mitigating climate change is unproven. The researchers have not determined, for example, how much carbon can be stored in the soil and for how long.
The $300 million investment seeks to address the scientific uncertainty surrounding these practices. It will establish a network to examine how soil carbon is sequestered across the country, create another focused on greenhouse gas emissions, and improve models to better measure agricultural conservation programs.
Construction of the nets will occur over the next eight years, and the Department of Agriculture will make the data public one year after collection, a spokesman said.
Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, welcomed the move, calling the investment “a really important foundation that we should have laid 20 years ago.”
“We are making terrible use of the tens of billions of conservation dollars we are spending because we simply don’t know enough about what practices reduce emissions,” he added. “That is a gigantic, existential, planetary-at-risk problem that the USDA is beginning to address.”
Currently, the agricultural sector is responsible for about 10 percent of emissions nationwide, according to government data. But existing data collection systems contain gaps, may be out of date or do not provide granular details about individual farming practices, said William Hohenstein, director of the Department of Agriculture’s office of energy and environmental policy.
The announcement comes as some Republican lawmakers seek to rescind the $20 billion in funding of the Inflation Reduction Act dedicated to agricultural conservation.
Mr Vilsack warned that reversing that funding would be a “big mistake” because the resulting initiatives, such as data collection networks, could encourage investment or growth in certain farming practices. More precise measurements of its effects could open up more market opportunities for farmers in both the government and the private sector, he said. These could take the form of higher prices for carbon credits or conservation easements, for example.
“We are going to collect a substantial amount of information, which in turn will allow us to uniformly bolster the credibility of the information being provided, which in turn creates greater trust, which in turn allows markets to develop, in turn, results in increased adoption and income opportunities for farmers, ranchers and producers, all of which also help create jobs in rural locations,” said Mr. Vilsack.