USDA pledges $1B for ‘climate smart’ ag products

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a $1 billion grant program to boost agricultural and forestry products that are made with reduced greenhouse gas emissions. (Screenshot from USDA video)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to spend up to $1 billion to foster the creation of climate-friendly agricultural and forestry products by offering grants to facilitate their production and the markets to sell them.

The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in those industries.

“Agriculture is such an exciting but challenging, critical but dynamic space. It’s easy to make the case to young people to get engaged in this,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday in his announcement of the program at Missouri’s Lincoln University, a historically Black university with a robust agricultural program. “It’s at the heart of our fight against climate change.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions — which are key drivers of a warming climate — come from agriculture, especially livestock production. Cattle are agriculture’s primary emitters of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The USDA’s new Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program will provide up to $100 million for individual pilot projects to plan and implement emission-reducing practices, create new markets to sell the products that result from those practices, and quantify the effectiveness of the practices.

Measuring livestock emissions has long been a tricky proposition for federal regulators. An example: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suspended its enforcement of the Clean Air Act as it might pertain to animal confinements about 16 years ago as it seeks to develop a reliable way to measure the buildings’ emissions.

Beef production is potentially a bigger quandary because the animals are often raised in open-air lots. However, researchers have been able to estimate the average annual methane production from cows and how much it can be reduced with specialized diets.

The new USDA grant program is open to a wide variety of entities: Businesses, non-profit organizations, governments, Native American tribal governments and organizations, and colleges and universities.

The department has set an April 8 deadline for proposals that range from $5 million to $100 million and a May 27 deadline for those that would cost less than $5 million, according to the department’s public Notice of Funding Opportunity. Small and “historically underserved” agricultural producers and “minority-serving institutions” will get priority, the notice says.

“This might look, for example, like a group of small farmers working with a nonprofit to implement and quantify climate-smart practices in partnership with a retailer,” Vilsack said. “Or it could be a network of commodity organizations recruiting specialty crop farmers to quantify reduced emissions and market the resulting products. It may be a farmer-partner organization working with universities to test innovative approaches to monitor and verify climate benefits to aid in marketing. It could be all of that or any of it, along with a lot of other ideas and concepts.”

Vilsack did not say whether the products would bear a “climate smart” label that is subject to USDA certification, similar to organic foods.

Jared Strong is a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, which first published this report.

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