A New Crop of Ideas for Fighting Climate Change

Agriculture can be a force for environmental health. Here's how.

Chris Teachout, a fifth-generation farmer, examines the quality of his soil, which he keeps healthy by planting cover crops on his farm in southwest Iowa.
Chris Teachout, a fifth-generation farmer, examines the quality of his soil, which he keeps healthy by planting cover crops on his farm in southwest Iowa. (Brad Zweerink for Earthjustice)

This page was published 6 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

When it comes to tackling climate change, agriculture isn’t usually part of the conversation. But it should be. Agriculture is directly responsible for about 10 percent of American’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the impact of our food system overall, including food processing and disposal, as well as the global deforestation driven by our eating habits, is much greater. But U.S. agriculture also has an ace up its sleeve — more than 1 billion acres of land capable of storing carbon.

At Earthjustice, we are rethinking the role of agriculture in the environment, and finding ways to shift this vast, resource-intensive system into a force for environmental health, rather than degradation. In a recent paper published in the Environmental Law Reporter, my co-author Nathan Rosenberg and I lay out a detailed framework for creating a carbon neutral agriculture system, in a way that makes economic sense for farmers and political sense for elected officials. By reshaping the current legal and policy landscape to encourage farming practices that cut emissions and permanently store carbon, we can and should reinvent our agricultural system to better serve the environment and the health of our society.     

First, we need to slash emissions from fertilizer and livestock. On average, only 50 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to grains like corn gets used by the crops, and the excess pollutes waterways or ends up as climate-polluting nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Fine-tuning the rate of fertilizer application, timing, and placement will help reduce this pollution, as will as would shifting toward practices such as crop rotations that reduce the need for additional fertilizer . Earthjustice is exploring legal approaches to create strong incentives for farmers to reduce over-fertilization.

To cut climate-polluting methane emissions from livestock, researchers are looking at changing animals’ diets, introducing food supplements and even using vaccines. Storing manure dry instead of wet is another solution. Moving away from factory farming and returning to the tradition of raising animals together with crops — where manure can be left on the field to decompose aerobically —  would drastically reduce methane emissions from manure management.

Earthjustice has long advocated for rural communities harmed by pollution from industrial animal agriculture. Our work to demand more transparency and accountability from these facilities will also help reduce methane emissions.

Finding ways to store more carbon in the soil is critical for climate stability. The USDA has begun to encourage soil conservation practices such as no-till farming and cover-cropping, which preserve soil health and increase soil carbon. Several states have or are considering healthy soil programs to provide funding and technical assistance to farmers who want to implement such practices.

Incentives should go beyond no-till farming and cover cropping, however. These are good farming practices and climate-friendly, but their climate benefits can be undone by a single turn of the plow. Earthjustice and our allies are also exploring opportunities to develop federal incentives for long-term conservation strategies, such as agroforestry (incorporating trees and shrubs into cropland and pastureland) and perennial agriculture (plants such as fruit or nut trees that do not need annual replanting, disturbing the soil less). These methods ensure that carbon stays locked in plant roots and shoots.

There’s plenty of room to incorporate carbon-soaking trees and shrubs into cropland and pastureland, especially in ecologically sensitive, marginally productive lands that are now being planted because crop insurance subsidies encourage it. According to a 2012 study, the widespread adoption of agroforestry practices in the United States could sequester 530 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year, transforming agriculture into a carbon sink.

Virtually all climate-friendly practices are cost-effective over the longer term and provide other environmental benefits such as clean water or wildlife habitat. They also provide much-needed protection from extreme weather. Healthy soils that have been planted with diverse crops, shrubs and trees, and spared the damage of tilling, over-grazing and intensive chemical use hold more water than industrially farmed soils, which means they are less susceptible to flooding and droughts.

Despite these advantages, the spread of these practices has been achingly slow,  because outdated laws and policies strongly favor industrial farming. Today’s agricultural system is a result of Depression-era reforms enacted to save farms from bankruptcy—but the family farms of the 1930s hardly exist now. Today, more than 80 percent of our food is produced by fewer than 10 percent of farms, and technology and chemicals have dramatically changed how these farms operate.

We need to reshape the legal and policy landscape that has entrenched the industrial production of corn and meat into one that helps meet our current needs: healthier foods to combat obesity and other chronic disease, clean water, fair labor, healthy soils and carbon storage. Taking advantage of natural systems such as trees, crop rotations and cover crops, as well as high-tech innovation, such as precision application of fertilizer or satellite mapping of productive and unproductive areas, can help maintain high agricultural productivity without high environmental impact.

Elected officials — even those who normally shy away from discussing climate change—can support the spread of climate-friendly practices for the range of benefits they provide, including long-term cost-effectiveness, soil health and resilience to extreme weather.

The federal government spends almost $3 billion annually on agricultural research, development and extension programs, much of which can be used to support climate-friendly farming. Agricultural operations that do not follow basic conservation practices should not be eligible to receive funds through USDA.

Funding for conservation should prioritize programs that create long-term climate benefits, such as agroforestry, and focus on areas that have the greatest conservation and ecological value, such as marginal farmland that is least profitable for crops. Funding for environmentally harmful operations, such as concentrated animal feedlots (CAFOs), should be reduced or eliminated.

Ultimately, Congress should adopt a system that rewards farmers not only for crop production, but for a comprehensive array of benefits, including carbon sequestration, drinking water protection (a costly concern, especially in the Midwest) and wildlife habitat preservation. Research suggests that a payment-for-ecosystem-services program could cost billions less than what we spend on crop insurance, commodity and conservation programs each year.

By shifting policies and payments to support climate stabilization and a healthier environment, Congress would also be supporting a more transparent, equitable and sustainable agricultural system.  

About this series

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.