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Federal government aims to track and reduce farming’s carbon footprint – but is it enough?

A tractor planting soybeans without tilling the land is driving across a field of cover crops.
NRCS/SWCS photo by Lynn Betts
Flickr Creative Commons
A farmer in Iowa plants soybeans, without tilling, across his land filled with cereal rye cover crops. The USDA invested in conservation programs that encourage climate-friendly farming, like planting cover crops and tilling less land.

Farming produces 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking new steps to lower that number, but some experts warn it might not be enough.

Last summer, the department spent nearly $20 billionon conservation programs that encourage climate-friendly farming. That includes planting cover crops like beans and peas, which help soils absorb carbon year-round. And tilling less farmland to keep more carbon stored in soils rather than being released into the atmosphere.

Now, the department plans to spend $300 million more on national research networks. One network will measure the effectiveness of climate-friendly practices; another will monitor levels of greenhouse gas emissions released through crop and livestock production. That data will be collected over the next decade.

Anne Schechinger of the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization, said the move is a “step in the right direction, but many years late.”

“In 10 years, when we have all the data, is it going to be too late to really be reducing emissions?” the agricultural economist added. “So many other sectors – transportation, energy – are working on reducing emissions. And so it’s really important for agriculture to be doing that right now.”

And if farming doesn’t shrink its carbon output, the sector’s share of the nation’s emissions is expected to grow to more than 30% by 2050, according to a 2022 study by research firm Rhodium Group.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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