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Farms fuel global warming. Billions in tax dollars likely aren't helping - report

A new report from the Environmental Working Group finds some of the USDA's "climate-smart" farming practices getting taxpayer dollars likely don't reduce emissions.
Brandon Bell
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A new report from the Environmental Working Group finds some of the USDA's "climate-smart" farming practices getting taxpayer dollars likely don't reduce emissions.

From gas-belching cows to polluting fertilizer, the agriculture sector makes up an ever growing portion of the country's planet-heating pollution. That's why the Biden administration and Congress have allocated billions of dollars to the U.S. Department of Agriculture through federal climate legislation. The money is going to farmers to change their practices with the aim of reducing climate pollution.

But a new report from the non-profit Environmental Working Group finds billions of federal funding subsidizes farming practices that might not reduce climate emissions. The USDA relies on independent scientific studies that suggest these provisional farming practices could reduce climate pollution. But the agency itself has not yet quantified the practices' actual climate impact.

"If these unproven practices stay on the list, a large portion of the money will go to practices that aren't likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says Anne Schechinger, Midwest director for the Environmental Working Group. "And that's in direct opposition to Congress's intentions."

Silvia Secchi is a professor in the department of geographical and sustainability sciences at University of Iowa and was not involved with the report. She says the federal government should quantify that the billions of taxpayer dollars will actually go towards slowing global warming before - not after - sending the money to farmers.

"This jumping the gun of paying the farmers and then finding the evidence is super problematic," Secchi says. "After the fact, what does it buy us if we find out that it didn't work?"

Some farming practices getting funding may not reduce emissions

The USDA - through its Natural Resources Conservation Service - is providing money to farmers to try to reduce emissions that drive climate change. The agency considers practices 'provisional,' until it has the data to prove they have a climate benefit.

One provisional practice involves paying farmers to switch from open-ditch waterways to water pipelines made of plastic or metal, says Dana Ashford-Kornburger, National Climate Coordinator at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She says with a pipeline less water will evaporate and seep out. The idea is farmers will pump less water and use less fossil fuels. The money is only available to farmers who use a fossil fuel based pumping system, the USDA says.

But Schechinger says the government hasn't yet pointed to the studies that show this will reduce fossil fuel use. Plus the government doesn't calculate emissions from constructing new pipelines, many made of plastic from fossil fuels. "We think that's really a stretch to try to get to this pipeline reducing greenhouse gas emissions," Schechinger says.

Other practices help subsidize storing animal waste. The USDA says in a public statement that "the waste storage structure practice is only eligible when specifically implementing a compost-bedded pack structure" and "the practice is expected to reduce methane." Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

But Secchi worries incentives like this for the cattle and dairy industry could have a rebound effect that makes polluting farms grow. "Nobody has provided any evidence that this does not create incentives for the industry to expand, become bigger and consolidate, and therefore increase their greenhouse gas emissions," she says.

Congress mandates this money go towards real emission reductions

Much of the money for these practices comes from federal climate legislation - the Inflation Reduction Act or IRA. Congress stipulates that these taxpayer dollars have to go towards real emission reductions.

Ashford-Kornburger says her division relies on scientific literature that shows the provisional practices will likely have a climate benefit. After farmers implement the practices the government then quantifies the actual climate impact.

"We have these provisional activities on there because we have a realistic expectation that we're going to be able to estimate those benefits," Ashford-Kornburger says, "But if we can't figure that out, there's nothing to prevent us from removing practices."

Schechinger says given the doubts about many of these practices, they shouldn't be getting taxpayer dollars yet. "There's nothing wrong with the USDA testing these practices this year and seeing if they can quantify how much they reduce emissions, if at all. But we just don't think the IRA money should be going to them until they have proven emissions benefits," she says.

There are other climate solutions the government could subsidize

The USDA says they hope to make the key scientific literature and methodologies available online for the public by late summer. Secchi says that more science and evidence from the government can't come soon enough.

"At some point we need to see some real numbers rather than hand waving and wishy-washy, wishful thinking," Secchi says. "I think the burden of proof is with USDA, that they need to demonstrate that these practices actually do what they're telling us they do."

Jonathan Foley, executive director of the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown, says in the meantime the federal government should focus on incentivizing practices that more clearly reduce emissions. Almost half of U.S. agriculture emissions come from gas-belching livestock - particularly cattle - and manure management. Foley says one good start? Incentivizing farmers to transition away from producing beef and dairy.

"A lot of the big things the USDA could be doing is thinking about how much meat and dairy do we need," Foley says. "We're not even talking about it, let alone funding it."

Asked about whether the USDA is helping incentivize farmers to move away from cattle, a spokesperson writes in an email that "the department is focused on helping as many farmers and ranchers as want to help mitigate climate impacts access the tools to do so."

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Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.