20 September 2021

Three U.S. soil associations unveil seven proposals for climate-resilient agriculture


Proposals from U.S. experts: data use, effective communication, specific solutions, collaboration and more. The goal? Changing agriculture to tackle climate change.

by Matteo Cavallito


In order to tackle climate change U.S. agriculture “needs a collections of practices tailored for each region, climate, soil type, and farming system” according to three different organizations: the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society and the Soil Science Society of America. In the U.S., the entire food production chain is worth $1.1 trillion, or more than 5% of GDP. The agricultural sector accounts for 136 billion. Global warming and unsustainable resource management, however, create well-known problems.

That’s why the three associations created a new policy document in recent weeks to provide new solutions whith Seven different recommendations. Solutions must involve all players in the chain: including policymakers, operators, researchers and distributors.

1) Agriculture must balance its emissions.

Today’s agriculture needs to balance emissions with sequestration, water use with water retention, and soil building, not soil erosion, all without increasing acreage in production,” the document states. Moreover: “it needs to efficiently pay back what it withdraws from the planet and stem the emissions that cause climate change”. In short: “The first step toward achieving ecosystem balance is to decrease agriculture’s overall footprint”. This requires the creation of a set of specific interventions suited to each kind of situation. Therefore, there is no general solution, but rather a set of different practices.

2) Data are crucial

Climate-friendly agriculture can preserve soil ecosystem services. The benefits are well-known, but measuring them is not easy. “The “wicked problem” of ecosystem services is that each practice and each benefit does not operate in isolation. Their ultimate potential and impact lies in how they synergize, counteract, or are modified in concert,” the authors explain. “Elucidating this complex dance is a research frontier that scientists have only begun to understand, but it is essential for the success and credibility of climate-smart agriculture programs.” In short, we need to invest in technology and coordination of information by harmonizing data production. This requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire experts to improve the quality of information.

3) The specific context is essential

Identifying the unique properties of each particular situation is critical. The U.S. Department of Agriculture should encourage practices that support the sustainability of the agricultural system, starting with those that enhance carbon sequestration capacity. However, “because their effectiveness will vary across regions and farming systems, new strategies, tools, and technologies must also be developed for a nation-wide implementation to be successful.” In short: thinking on a national scale but taking into account local specificities.

4) A resilient soil towards extreme weather events

In recent years, extreme weather events have become more frequent, favoring the outbreak of natural disasters. In 2019, experts say, 40 percent of fields in South Dakota, for example, could not be planted due to flooding. More recently, California wildfire spread has been notoriously devastating. “Agronomic researchers regularly look at resilience through the lens of soil health and cropping systems,” the report states. “For example, they ask the following: Is the soil in a position to absorb water in case of flood or retain it in case of drought? Will it resist erosion?”

Luckily, there are effective carbon-capture practices-such as the use of cover crops, which improve soil water-holding capacity, increase drainage, and provide habitat for declining pollinator populations-but right now we need to improve research and communication at various levels to assess the effectiveness of each strategy in different contexts.

5) Better communication

Communication between scientists and experts working in the field also needs to be improved, according to the researchers. “If only published in scientific journals,” they say, “even the most important advances will have little practical impact because these methods of information sharing are not accessible. Collaborations among universities, federal agencies, producers, and trusted advisers have enabled the access that is needed and produced profound improvements in the nation’s soil and environmental health.”

6) More inclusion

Ensuring a wider range of opinions and experiences is also critical to fostering more extensive and productive discussions on climate change and agriculture issues. “Barriers of all kinds prevent people of color from pursuing careers in science and agriculture, and this needs to change”, the authors say. More in general, “Those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to choose a field with unreliable funding”. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture should double funding to guarantee equitable access to agricultural science.

7) Promoting cooperation at all levels

In a complex system like the food chain, connecting very different players can be crucial, experts say. The list of players expected to cooperate includes retailers but also “seed suppliers, crop nutrient and protection suppliers, consultants, bankers or lenders, equipment suppliers, feed suppliers, local Farm Service Agency (FSA) staff, and crop insurance agents”. In fact, each actor brings connections, experience and trust built up over the years in relationships with other players in the chain. This is why, the researchers say, “unusual collaborations can have unexpected benefitss”.