How Food and Forestry Are Adapting to a Changing Climate

Tom Vilsack
May 3, 2016 · 13 min read

On the day he was inaugurated in 2009, President Obama called for “a new era of responsibility.” Shortly thereafter, he convened the world’s largest economies to confront the threat of climate change as a global force. From day one, the President and his Administration have transformed the United States economy into a global leader in renewable energy and an aggressive champion of greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions through practical, science-based solutions.

Central to the President’s Climate Action Plan is agriculture, forestry and land stewardship. To meet our national goal of reducing GHG emissions by 26–28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, the plan called for our nation’s food and forestry producers to embrace innovation and conservation like never before.

For over 150 years, American farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have adapted in the face of weather challenges. But climate change posed unknown threats. Last year marked the 19th consecutive year that our annual average temperature was above the 20th century average. One region of the United States now experiences historic droughts while another is hit by stronger and more frequent storms. Invasive species and pests lay siege to forests in the Mountain West while increasingly intense wildfires rip through landscapes from the Southwest to the Pacific Northwest up to Alaska.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack listens to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) supervisory plant physiologist Dr. Jerry Hatfield explain the equipment to gather information on climate changes and impacts on corn and soybean plants in Iowa.
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In this new reality, farmers, ranchers and landowners began to search out tools, technologies and new partnerships to manage their investments against these risks. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture was there to offer cutting-edge research and data to guide them. Working with producers and landowners since 2009, USDA has:

1. Enrolled record acres in conservation programs through a new model of stewardship that brings together local, national, public and private partners

2. Set the nation’s first measurable benchmarks in food and forestry to reduce net emissions and enhance CO2 sequestration by 120 million MT per year

3. Implemented the nation’s first comprehensive planning rule in a generation to ensure the health and sustainabilty of our national forests and grasslands

4. Set the first-ever national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030

5. Established seven regional Climate Hubs and three sub-hubs to give producers and landowners data and guidance for decision-making

6. Invested unprecedented resources in climate research and developed science-based tools to help landowners evaluate management options

7. Helped rural businesses save enough energy to power 959,000 homes annually

8. Cofounded an alliance of 120 nations and partners to enhance agricultural productivity and incomes and reduce GHG emissions and increase CO2 sequestration

The evolution happening today in U.S. food and forestry to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts is historic. And it all began with a commitment to renewable energy.

Jesse Sanchez evaluates the soil on his farm in Firebaugh, CA.
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Helping thousands of rural small businesses, farmers and ranchers shift away from fossil-based energy by installing renewable energy systems and energy efficiency solutions has been one of the most important components of USDA’s climate mitigation investments. Thanks to USDA investments in renewable energy projects of all sizes, rural Americans are saving more than 10.4 billion kWh — enough energy to power more than 959,000 American homes annually. USDA has invested $38 billion in electric loans and more than $1 billion for smart grid technologies since 2009, helping build more than 185,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines serving approximately 5 million rural customers annually. Today, more than 2,200 USDA wind and solar renewable electricity generation projects power more than 130,000 homes annually.

USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) provided over $365 million in grants and over $440 million in loan guarantees to agricultural producers and rural small business owners financing over 11,000 projects. All told, REAP projects are generating and saving power equivalent to removing more than 1 million cars from the road. In the forestry sector, USDA invested nearly $1 billion through grants, loans, and loan guarantees to support over 230 wood energy projects across the country to reduce reliance on costly fossil fuels, support rural economic growth and advance forest restoration.

Across the country, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners have experienced a slow but steady uptick in their operational risks, due in part to a variety of impacts from a changing climate.

Corn shows the affect of drought in Texas

Growing seasons in the Midwest, a region that includes my home state of Iowa, have lengthened by almost two weeks since 1950. In the Southeast, rising temperatures are increasing risk of heat-stress for livestock and crops. Fire season, which most dramatically impacts the Western states, is now 78 days longer than it was just 30 years ago and that number will grow with more insect outbreaks, more drought and more storms over the next 50 years. All of these events not only threaten our food supply and, therefore, our national security, but are also costly for producers and rural economies.

To give agriculture and forest producers a reliable source of regional data and science-based information, USDA established seven regional Climate Hubs and three sub-hubs. The Hubs aim to process science and research into information that is accessible to producers, and provide guidance and practices to help land managers address a region-specific set of risks due to climate variability and change.

Established in 2014, each of the USDA Climate Hubs offer detailed vulnerability assessments to highlight regional sensitivities and adaptation strategies for working lands. The Hubs have prepared regional GHG emissions profiles, identified mitigation opportunities and produced numerous decision support tools and outreach materials to help land managers make climate-informed decisions.

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Our nation’s public and private forests offset up to 14 percent of GHG emissions each year. Knowing our forests are one of the earth’s best filters of GHG, the Forest Service developed a landmark Forest Planning Rule in 2012 — the first such rule in a generation — to guide management of the 193 million acres in the National Forest System. Forests across the country are revising their individual plans to meet requirements to protect water and wildlife, and combat climate change, fire and pests. Each plan requires land managers to identify and evaluate climate stressors and monitor impacts. This balanced approach to climate change includes managing forests and grasslands to adapt to changing conditions, mitigating climate change, building partnerships across boundaries, and preparing our employees to understand and apply emerging science.

In 2015, USDA launched the answer to President Obama’s Climate Action Plan challenge for food and forestry, with the Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry. Ten building blocks span a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy.

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Through the Department’s voluntary and incentive-based conservation and energy programs, USDA and its partners are moving forward to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year, or about 2 percent of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions, by 2025. This reduction is the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road or offsetting the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes per year.

Our strategy is designed to meet the needs of producers by enhancing productivity and economic benefits while boosting efficiency to ensure that participating farmers are improving yields while they adapt.

The Building Blocks also encourage USDA to partner with industry, farm groups, conservation organizations, municipalities, public and private investment products, tribes and states. A wide-ranging and diverse group of companies including the Nature Conservancy, Walmart, United Suppliers, The Fertilizer Institute, The Forest Climate Working Group and the Environmental Defense Fund, to name a few, came together to announce early actions and commitments to more sustainable practices, signaling their support of our approach and showing that, all-told, our cumulative commitments can add up to meaningful results.

These Building Blocks are significant not only within the United States, but also internationally. Just this past Earth Day, nearly 200 countries, including the United States, signed a new framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sinks. The Paris Agreement, adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, builds on the United States’ commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The Building Blocks demonstrate that agriculture and forestry are playing a significant role in helping the United States meet its commitment. In turn, the United States is developing practices and strategies that will serve as a model for other nations to address emissions from the land sector while also meeting the world’s needs for food, fiber and energy. A progress report on our commitments under the Building Blocks will be released this month highlighting our accomplishments and plans for the future.

Our partnership with EPA to initiate the U.S. Food Waste Challenge sets the first-ever national food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030 in an effort to reduce the amount of wasted food in landfills, which in turn produce methane emissions that fuel climate change. We estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted. Food waste is the single largest type of waste entering our landfills. Meeting these reduction goals will result in significantly reduced emissions of landfill methane.

Putting wood to good use is another tactic in our climate plan. Using wood helps to reduce GHG emissions by storing carbon and simultaneously offsetting emissions from conventional building materials. In September 2015, in partnership with the Softwood Lumber Board and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, USDA announced the winners of the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. The competition was held to support a resilient rural wood products industry, promote forest restoration and retention, and foster sustainability in the built environment. USDA is leading the way in demonstrating the innovative uses of wood and other bio-based products that reduce emissions and increase carbon storage.

We’ve also entered into a unique partnership with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to voluntarily reduce the industry’s methane emissions from dairy production and to increase the adoption of methane digesters. USDA investments have supported more than 200 anaerobic digesters helping farm operations produce electricity from captured methane. Under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the dairy industry have also developed a Biogas Opportunities Roadmap and subsequent update, outlining voluntary strategies to overcome barriers to expansion and development of a robust biogas industry within the United States.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is our best example of a new model that delivers regionally sensitive conservation assistance to producers and landowners in all 50 states. Like our Climate Hubs, this program recognizes that regional collaboration is effective in developing solutions that work best for the people they serve. Through RCPP, USDA and partners are investing up to $1.5 billion toward 199 conservation projects that will help communities design regionally specific efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, improve water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability.

In addition, we’re helping farmers, ranchers and forest landowners participate in greenhouse gas markets. USDA has invested over $11 million to support 18 projects pursuing greenhouse gas market opportunities. For example, Ducks Unlimited used a 2011 Conservation Innovation Grant to help Chevrolet, a division of General Motors, purchase almost 40,000 carbon dioxide reduction tons generated on working ranch grasslands in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota. In Michigan, the Delta Institute working with American Farmland Trust, Environmental Defense Fund, agricultural retailers and other partners, facilitated a first-of-its kind partnership demonstrating that through careful adjustments in nitrogen fertilizer application, participating farmers can generate revenue while maintaining crop yields and reducing the harmful impact of nitrous oxide emissions.

Investments in fuels reduction assist a firefighter on the San Juan Fire southeast of Show Low, AZ.
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Last year, 2015, wildfires burned a record 10,125,149 acres and the U.S. Forest Service spent a record figure battling those blazes. For the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress wildfire. Within a decade, the agency estimates it will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle ever-increasing fires, gutting the budget for programs that can help prevent fires in the first place, such as forest restoration and watershed and landscape management. Fire, insects, disease and pressures to convert forestland to development, all threaten the long term capacity of our nation’s forests to serve as a powerful greenhouse gas “sink” — offsetting up to 14 percent of emissions domestically each year.

Since 2000, fire seasons have grown longer, and the frequency, size and severity of wildland fires has increased. The 2015 fires stretched across federal, state and private land with Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington being especially hard hit. Year after year, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget is exhausted, forcing USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling the blazes. I want to fix this problem, increase the resiliency of lands to recover from fire, and protect communities and infrastructure. But there are obstacles. Learn more here. Our approach allows federal wildfire-fighting agencies to invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management. In the case of the Forest Service, it would increase acres treated by 1 million acres annually and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually, helping to protect public lands and maintain our ecosystems.

From 2009–2014, USDA conservation programs have resulted in a cumulative 281 million MT of CO2e from reduced emissions and enhanced carbon sequestration. On average, this is 47.8 million MT of CO2e annually for these fiscal years, estimated to be roughly over 10.1 million passenger cars driven annually.
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Since 2009, USDA has invested over $656 million to support climate change research by USDA scientists and partners at land-grant universities, helping inform farmers, ranchers and land managers as they evaluate and respond to climate-related challenges.

In 2012, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) began setting up the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network, which draws on long-term environmental and production data and existing Federal and university research networks to develop a systems-approach for interpreting and improving agricultural productivity. These 18 research sites represent a broad diversity of agricultural production landscapes across the U.S. The work of the LTAR researchers will be important to the long-term resilience and sustainability of agricultural production, and help U.S. agriculture adapt to a changing climate.

USDA is also doing considerable research on grazing lands related to climate change. Scientists have developed new native grass varieties that have improved drought tolerance and climatic resilience, are better adapted to changing climate, and remain hearty during restoration efforts with improved germination. In addition to plant varieties, ARS scientists are developing technologies and management strategies for grazing lands. One example is work in Burns, Oregon to develop “seed pillows” that encase the native seeds in a nutrient rich environment that fosters their germination and establishment. By using this planting technique, scientists are seeing improved seeding success during restoration efforts following wildfire.

Our research team has also developed a comprehensive report on science-based methods for estimating greenhouse gas fluxes due to local agriculture and forest management. USDA tools such as COMET-Farm (agriculture management) and the Forest Vegetation Simulator (forest management) to help landowners evaluate management options.

Using the USDA-developed iSnobal model, USDA scientists in Boise, Idaho worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) to implement an entirely new technology for forecasting water supply derived from melting snow. NASA/JPL and the Airborne Snow Observatory (ASO) program used remote sensing to provide weekly measurements of snow cover distribution across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, while USDA scientists used the iSnobal model to generate sophisticated estimates of snow density over the same region. The combination of precise measurements of snow cover and accurate estimates of snow density result in highly accurate estimates of snow pack water content. Farmers, residents, public utilities, and other groups in California’s Central Valley can use these projections of available water supply from snowmelt to plan equitable and sustainable water allocation and use strategies.

Through the Snow Survey and Water Supply program, USDA collects data to track the scientific basis for how the climate is changing. By comparing current conditions to past years, hydrologists accurately forecast the volume of streamflow from snowmelt.
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The findings showed that in the absence of response measures, climate change is likely to diminish continued progress on global food security and that the risks are greatest for the global poor and in tropical regions.
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And USDA’s GRACEnet (Greenhouse gas Reduction through Agricultural Carbon Enhancement network) research program identifies and helps develop agricultural practices that enhance carbon sequestration in soils.

We’ve also founded two international collaborations focused on climate change and greenhouse gases. The Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases expands international collaboration on climate change research. The GRA brings together researchers and experts from across the globe in order to find ways to grow more food without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture (GACSA), a coalition of over 120 nations and partners, aspires to enhance sustainable increases in agricultural productivity and farm incomes; build greater resilience of food systems and farming livelihoods to threats posed by climate change; and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

Finally, we’ve released region-specific fact sheets for working land managers on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. And our recent report, Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System, identifies climate change effects on global food security and examines the implications of these effects for the United States.

Read more about the U.S. Drought Monitor
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Our nation’s farming and ranching communities continue to lead the charge towards a more sustainable future. Stay tuned for more this year when we will look at how USDA investments in renewable energy helped the United States move closer to a clean energy future and healthier planet for our children.

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