What is climate-smart agriculture? Well…..there are a lot of definitions of this term and they don’t always mean the same thing, but it is about to become policy in many areas of our government. Taking a tag line from the movie Apollo 13, “Houston, we have a problem”.
USDA published in the Federal Register a notice early last week for public input on climate-smart agriculture and forestry. A direct quote by USDA: “The Notice represents an important step toward implementing President Biden’s executive order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The Order, signed January 27, states that, “America’s farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have an important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by sequestering carbon in soils, grasses, trees, and other vegetation and sourcing sustainable bioproducts and fuels.” The Order directs Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to solicit input from stakeholders as USDA develops a climate-smart agriculture and forestry approach.” The deadline for input is, 11:59 EST, April 29th. The Notice seeks information on four topics: climate-smart agriculture (CSA) and forestry; biofuels, bioproducts, and renewable energy; catastrophic wildfire; and meeting the needs of disadvantaged communities through USDA’s climate strategy.
You may be wondering where is all of this coming from and why I am bringing it up. Last November (2020), a group of Obama-era officials and Joe Biden transition team advisors released a series of policy memos on how the Biden Administration would fight climate change policy from the White House. That memo can be found at: https://climate21.org/ . The memo for USDA is found at: https://climate21.org/usda/ and can be downloaded. While a lot of this info sounds good, such as carbon banking, rural investments, financial incentives, and others, the “devil is in the details”.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was on a Zoom call with three USDA- Administrators of three different agencies. They were informing the attendees just what President Biden was expecting from the agencies and how we might participate in various programs that would emanate from the changes in policy that were taking place. In each case, all invoked the adoption of CSA. Since I knew this term from studying the different policies of organizations over the years (which highlighted only certain practices that fit their narratives), I asked how they defined it. As you can imagine, I was met with “crickets”. I knew from a previous discussion that USDA was seeking input on CSA but hadn’t been provided an opportunity yet, to engage in this discussion. Needless to say, they didn’t have an answer to my question nor did they know when this would take place. Yes, that was disturbing as it is being written into policy.
Over the last several years having read many publications on agricultural research and policies, I have seen the words “climate-smart” become popular expressing some one’s idea of an advanced or modern environmentally-friendly agricultural system. In reality, it is a poorly defined and vague expression which has crept into U.S. policy. When I ask people what they think climate-smart agriculture means, I get LOTS of different answers.
Well, the earliest creation of this expression and definition that I have found was published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2010. The authors of the publication, “Climate-Smart” Agriculture: Policies, Practices, and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation and Mitigation defined climate-smart as: agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation), and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals. http://www.fao.org/3/i1881e/i1881e00.pdf .
Wow. Who wouldn’t like climate-smart agriculture if it turns out that way, right? Therein lies the rub (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Something this vague can mean many different things to different organizations or individuals. There are countless organizations at the table when it comes to making comments to any government agency regarding an issue of interest, particularly when it is an issue that affects their clientele. The organizations that will be weighing in are those who are interested in climate, agriculture and food. Many of these organizations have different ideas about “climate-smart agriculture”. Here are a few organizations that are developing and promoting policies for instance: U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, Ecosystem Services Marketplace Consortium, The Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, Land Core, Nori, Solutions from the Land, U.S. Farmers & Ranchers for a Green New Deal, Newtrient, Indigo Ag, North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance, Rural Investment to Protect our Environment, Farm for a Sustainable Future (American Farm Bureau), The Nature Conservancy, Soil Health Partnership, Honor the Harvest Forum (Aspen Institute and & USFRA), National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, etc. There are many more and the list is growing. I fully expect to see all our grower associations and organizations to weigh in on this important issue within the next month.
I encourage all to dig deep into the various organizations that create meanings and ideas on what is “CSA”. An interesting definition can be found on the internet free encyclopedia, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate-smart_agriculture. It certainly made me a little worried. There are resources listed as citations that are available on the internet to read which would fit developing countries but questionable for the U.S. or other countries with well-developed agricultural systems like ours. Let’s make sure our voices are not drowned out by irresponsible and unreasonable policy makers.
One thing is for sure, any time our government makes policy, it will cost someone something. Georgia farmers already bear heavy burdens when it comes to producing our food, fiber, and agricultural products. We desire to be both environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable. Without both we have no future. Let’s make sure we are not only financially incentivized, compensated properly for adoption but provided the opportunity for profit potential creation. Please, engage in this dialogue. We have to define these terms and expressions and policies with good science, common sense, reasonable solutions and measurable outcomes that are financial and environmentally beneficial.