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Climate Smart Agriculture is the future of food production. Here's what that means.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in Denver in September to discuss major federal investments in Climate Smart Agriculture
Rae Solomon
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in Denver in September to discuss major federal investments in Climate Smart Agriculture

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in Denver to discuss significant federal funds coming to Colorado to support Climate-Smart Agriculture — an initial investment of $2.8 billion.

With all that funding coming in, KUNC’s Rae Solomon wanted to get the low down on what Climate-Smart Agriculture means. She did some digging and recently sat down with KUNC’s All Things Considered host Beau Baker to share what she found.

BAKER: What is Climate-Smart Agriculture?

SOLOMON: It’s the idea that agriculture is deeply intertwined with the changing climate, and then it’s also a set of agricultural practices guided by that fact.

The idea that food production is already being impacted, by climate change. This is not something that far off in the future: the changing climate is creating new challenges – drought, flood and soil erosion, to name a few -- for agricultural producers in the present.

Bill Hohenstein is the director of the Office of Energy and Environmental Policy in the Office of the Chief Economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has been instrumental in developing the federal policy around climate smart agriculture. His take is that climate smart agriculture is a 3-pronged concept: “Improving productivity to feed the world, adapting to the climate change we're seeing and the climate change we expect to see. And, recognizing agriculture's role as a contributor to those emissions.”

A big component of climate smart agriculture is that there are things that producers can do, on their farms and ranches, that make them more resilient, help them adapt to climate change and increase their productivity and stay profitable in the face of climate challenges.

Marlen Eve, a deputy administrator with the Agricultural Research Service at the USDA, has a broad approach to climate smart agriculture. “From the research perspective,” he said, “anything that we're doing that helps producers to make better production decisions in the current environment that they're facing really is climate smart agriculture.”

And the beautiful thing is that some of those very same production decisions can also help to mitigate climate change.

BAKER: And so in practice, what do these decisions look like?

SOLOMON: It varies by region, but here in Colorado, there’s a lot of focus on building soil health – that is the quality and vitality of the soil – its nutrient content, its micro-biome, the amount of moisture it holds.

According to Marlen Eve there are many ways farmers can tend to the health of the soil they steward. “They're leaving more residue on the soil surface to protect the soil from erosion and increase the infiltration of their soils,” he said. “No-till is a great practice that can prove to be quite climate smart. And cover-cropping is going to be a significant one.”

No-till farming means that producers farm without turning over or otherwise disturbing the soil. Cover crops are what they sound like – it’s the practice growing something at all times to avoid bare, exposed soil. Bare soil can be easily blown away by the wind, and more moisture can evaporate from the surface. That’s the stuff farmers are trying to avoid.

The more advanced components of climate smart agriculture that tends to soil health includes integrating livestock into the fields – like letting cattle graze on cover crops, with the side benefit of all that natural fertilizer they bring with them.

BAKER: And these practices help mitigate climate change?

SOLOMON: Yes! Jane Zelikova, a soil scientist and executive director of the Soil Carbon Solutions Center at Colorado State University, says it works on two levels. On the one hand, some of these climate smart practices reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, farmers who do not till their fields, make less passes with a tractor up and down the rows. Less tractor driving burns fewer fossil fuels.

On the other hand, Zelikova also points out that healthy soil can remove carbon from the atmosphere. “Somewhere on the order of 10% of global annual emissions can be sort of recaptured back into soil,” she said.

That’s because healthy soils tend to have high carbon content. So all of those soil health practices, like no-till and cover cropping, help keep or put more carbon into the soil.

“There is an incredibly tight relationship between soil carbon and soil health,” Zelikova said. “In fact, soil carbon can be the strongest predictor of a healthy soil system. Soils that have a lot of carbon in them also tend to have really good water infiltration rates. They tend to have really good soil aggregates. They tend to have tightly cycling nutrients.”

BAKER: So, how is all of this reflected in Colorado Ag?

SOLOMON: Well, in Colorado, some farmers and ranchers have been using climate smart agricultural practices for a long time – even if they’ve never called it that. There have been groups of farmers organizing around no-till practices since at least the late 80s, for instance. But now concerns are increasing about the impact of climate change on agriculture, so there’s more urgency.

What’s happening right now is a series of climate smart ag pilot projects that the USDA is funding to the tune of $2.8 billion, nationally. Seventeen of those pilots are happening here in Colorado. But the flagship Colorado pilot project is a soil health initiative called the STAR program, that stands for Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources.

Cindy Lair, Manager for the Colorado State Conservation Board and the Soil Health Program at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, manages the STAR program. She described the stars as a rating system. “One star would be what about 80% of agricultural producers are doing - conventional agriculture without thought of climate and soil health,” Lair said.

The point is to encourage producers to vie for more stars by doing more for their soil health. The STAR program also offers financial incentives for farmers who are curious about adopting new soil health practices.

But the interesting thing about this program is that it is not just about producers. Eventually, the STAR program will be the entry point for consumers to engage with climate smart agriculture, by creating a market for climate smart commodities – at least that’s the goal. The idea is to take advantage of consumers’ concerns about climate change, and to strengthen their understanding of how food is produced. So, at some point down the line, you might see products at the supermarket that have a STAR rating, that give consumers some insight into how they were produced. The people behind these efforts are banking on consumers’ willingness to pay a premium for more sustainably raised food.

It's also worth noting that the recent Inflation Reduction Act included an additional $20 billion for climate smart ag, and these pilot projects will inform how that gets spent.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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