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June 28, 2013
USDA climate plans include carbon database

In an address at the National Press Club, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced recent U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA)  measures to improve our understanding of the presence of carbon in soil and encourage farmers to adapt their acreage and practices to climate change.  Programs discussed by Vilsack will establish USDA regional climate hubs, launch an online database on soil carbon, and result in a more consistent approach to crop cover.

The USDA and Vilsack have been highly active in the Obama administration in linking agriculture to climate change and its mitigation.  He notes that U.S. farmers and the U.S. food supply are on the front lines when the climate changes.  For example:

  • The fire season is now at least 60 days longer than it was just 30 years ago, and a recent Forest Service study forecasts a doubling of annual acreage subject to wildfire by 2050.
  • The pine beetle epidemic, which many scientists attribute to climate change, covers some 40 million acres of land across the interior West.
  • In the Northeast, extreme precipitation events have increased faster than anywhere else in the nation, reducing yields.
  • Across the Midwest and Great Plains, the growing season has lengthened by almost 2 weeks over the last 60 years.
  • In the West and Southwest–home to more than half the nation's high-value specialty crop production–increased drought poses a particular threat to irrigation-intensive nuts, fruits, and, vegetables.

Vilsack touches on many existing programs at the USDA in addition to the following new items.

Climate hubs

The seven regional hubs are intended as service centers for science-based risk management.  “The hubs will enable USDA to carry out regionally-appropriate climate change risk and vulnerability assessments and get data out to the field more quickly,” says Vilsack.  “Practically, the hubs will deal out advice to farmers and forest owners on ways to reduce risks and manage change.”

Online carbon database

The database will allow online access to the most extensive information on soil carbon in the world.  Included will be regional baseline carbon-stock data from 144,000 soil samples collected by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) from 6,000 locations across the country.  Most of these data are accessed by scientists. 

However, the NRCS and USDA’s Climate Change Office are rolling out a user-friendly online tool intended for farmers.  Users input information about their land and current and past management practices to establish a baseline.  The system then allows them to select from a list of alternative conservation practices to see how each changes their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon capture.  For example, a producer planning to implement conservation tillage could estimate how that conservation practice will increase soil carbon and decrease emissions overall for the operation.

Cover crops

Cover crops prevent soil erosion, improve nutrient cycling, sustain soils, and sequester carbon.  However, a cover crop must be terminated within specific time frames before a cash crop is insurable.  Vilsack notes that some producers have encountered conflicting cover crop management issues when working with multiple USDA agencies.  This has led to problems in obtaining crop insurance.  To address the problem, the USDA is working with stakeholders to develop a new guidance document on the latest possible time to terminate a cover crop so that carbon sequestration is maximized while at the same time minimizing the risk to the cash crop yield. 

Food waste

Vilsack also noted USDA’s work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.  At least 30 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted each year, an estimated 133 billion tons sent to landfills.  The EPA says food waste is the single largest component of solid waste going to landfills, and landfills are the third largest source of methane emissions. 

The intent of the program is to get 400 organizations to join the challenge by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020 to help reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills, recover food that could be used to feed those in need, and recycle food waste wherever it can be done.

Click here for Vilsack’s address.

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