This story comes from Circle of Blue, an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit journalism organization that works to inform the world’s most important decisions about water, food, and energy in a changing climate.
For decades, leading U.S. farm leaders likened efforts to rein in harmful climate change as attacks on agriculture itself, aligning with oil and gas industry groups to block policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That stance has slowly shifted in recent years, and now, fueled by $3.1 billion in federal grants, farm country is poised to shape a new era of “climate-smart” agricultural practices and take a significant role in addressing the dire consequences of a warming planet.
The actions can’t come fast enough. A panel of international scientists warned in March that the world faces a “rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future,” and that the actions implemented over the next few years will have consequences “now and for thousands of years.”
The Biden Administration’s focus on agriculture is just one part of a larger effort to address climate change, but it is a key element. By funding 141 experimental projects, the administration is hoping to push an industry currently responsible for generating 10% of U.S. greenhouse gases, to the front of the nation’s work to reduce carbon emissions.
The first grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for 70 large projects, were awarded in September 2022. A second round of funding, for 71 smaller projects, was awarded in December 2022.
The scope of the climate-smart program is expansive. Grants range from $271,200 to teach climate-friendly practices to immigrant farmers in Iowa to $95 million to encourage grain farmers in 12 Midwest states to use cultivation methods that build soil fertility. In between are projects to expand organic and sustainable agriculture, sequester carbon on pastures where livestock graze, and develop carbon-reducing cultivation methods on farms operated by African Americans and Native Americans.
In all, more than 60,000 farms and 25 million acres of crop and rangeland are involved, with spending reaching all 50 states and Puerto Rico, according to the USDA. Considerable sums are also earmarked for development of scientific methods to effectively measure whether these climate-smart practices actually meet a program goal of sequestering 60 million metric tons of carbon.
When making the rounds at annual farm conferences across the country over the winter, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack repeatedly declared that a “transformational” new era had opened for U.S. agriculture.
Grant recipients such as Marbleseed, a Wisconsin nonprofit that trains farmers in organic agriculture, say the government support is long overdue. Marbleseed is part of a partnership receiving a $4.5 million, five-year grant to train farmers in 14 Midwest and southern states on how to improve soil fertility. “We’ve been a tiny voice shouting into the storm for a very long time,” said Tom Manley, Marbleseed program director. “They finally are starting to hear us.”
Questions and controversy
But amid the optimism, fears and criticism about many elements of the program persist. While the pool of grantees include 11 historically Black universities and 36 public agricultural land grant universities, many others receiving funds are large corporate agriculture players, including companies that have played a role in creating air and water pollution and other environmental woes. They include Tyson Foods, Archer Daniels Midland, John Deere, Cargill, and Exxon Mobil. The influential American Farm Bureau Federation, which recently opposed requirements for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, helped shape the program’s design and counts several state affiliates as grantees.
Given the players involved, skeptics assert that “climate-smart” could be an empty catchphrase to divert attention away from agriculture’s documented record of extensive air and water pollution. Critics fear the projects may actually expand existing, ecologically insensitive methods of farming and say there has been a lack of transparency regarding details for some of the projects.
“There are 141 projects, all with different definitions, all defining climate-smart in their own way. It really opens it up to greenwashing,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a research group in Minneapolis.
Silvia Secchi, professor in the department of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa, said the USDA has declined to turn over requested documents about the projects. “They said the reason was to protect confidential business information,” Secchi said. “They’re spending billions of public dollars. What about this program is so sensitive?”
The skeptics also point out that previous transformations in agriculture have come with painful and counter-productive consequences. Widespread adoption of pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, and concentrated livestock feeding operations, for instance, led to extensive pollution of waterways, decimated soil health, killed off important pollinator species, and exposed people to toxins known to cause cancer and other diseases.
Evolution of “Climate-Smart”
The notion that modifying agricultural approaches could reduce carbon emissions took root over a decade ago. In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations introduced the concept of “climate-smart agriculture” and its carbon-reducing objectives in an influential report that was widely read in Washington and other world capitals.
The Obama administration got interested. Vilsack, who was serving his first stint as agriculture secretary, collaborated with John Kerry, then secretary of state and now President Biden’s special envoy for climate, to establish the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture. It was introduced as an FAO project at the UN in 2014.
After four years of being ignored by the Trump administration, climate-smart farming became relevant again to the Biden Administration. A week after his inauguration, President Biden issued an executive order “to implement a Government-wide approach that reduces climate pollution in every sector of the economy.”
Recipients are thrilled to see funding coming their way. More than $300 million is directed to sustainable and organic farm projects, by far the most money the USDA has ever spent to bring environmentally sensitive farming into the mainstream.
But many millions more are earmarked for projects that support conventional farmers and related businesses. Among the large grants was $30 million awarded to Gevo, a Colorado renewable energy developer that is building a $875 million ethanol plant in South Dakota to produce fuel for airlines. The grant provides a 25 cents to 50 cents per bushel bonus to corn growers to supply 35 million bushels needed to produce 65 million gallons of what the USDA calls “low-carbon intensity sustainable aviation fuel.” Gevo’s contracts require farmers to grow corn using “carbon-reducing practices.”
Those practices include time-honored approaches such as planting cover crops to build soil fertility, not plowing to keep carbon bound up in soil, and applying less fertilizer. They come with the extra benefits of controlling soil erosion, and in some limited cases, helping keep farm nutrients from running off into waterways.
An even larger grant of $80 million was awarded to Roeslein Alternative Energy, a Missouri company collaborating with Iowa State University, the Nature Conservancy, and 12 other groups to grow corn and soybeans, raise cattle and hogs, and produce methane from manure. The project’s innovative feature is to pay producers to plant grasses to restore prairies, and then harvest them to feed into biodigesters to produce a methane-rich biogas that can be converted to renewable natural gas. Remaining solids can be spread as fertilizer on farm fields, according to the company.
“There is so much opportunity right now in agriculture for energy,” said Roeslein spokesman Brandon Butler. “It’s figuring out how it’s sustainable. We’re at the forefront. Being able to digest biomass into clean, renewable energy coming from the Heartland.”
This report, co-published with Circle of Blue and The New Lede, is made possible by investigative reporting fellowships awarded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It is part of Toxic Terrain, an ongoing series looking at the consequences of industrial farm practices on the environment and public health.