New report questions USDA support for certain climate “smart” practices

A new analysis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding for “climate-smart” conservation practices argues that several are unlikely to actually have climate benefits and one may even increase harmful emissions, though government officials say the analysis is deeply flawed and based on “incorrect assumptions.”

With nearly $20 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to be used between 2023 and 2026, the USDA is investing more money than ever in combating greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which makes up 10% of US emissions, according to the EPA.

The analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization examines elements of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides funding for conservation practices. Congress designated $8.45 billion for EQIP specifically. As part of that, an increasing amount of money is going towards so-called “climate-smart” practices aimed at sequestering carbon in soil or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

EWG said that USDA is allowing farmers to claim this climate funding for implementing many practices that are unproven to help reduce emissions.

The report alleges, for example, that money can go toward a waste storage facility, used for livestock, would likely increase greenhouse gas emissions, according to the USDA’s own data.

The USDA expanded its “climate-smart” list – the specific practices that are eligible for funding – to allow 15 provisional practices, on which the USDA currently lacks data about their effect on emissions, EWG noted in its report.

USDA Press Secretary Allan Rodriguez called EWG’s analysis “fundamentally flawed, speculative, and rest on incorrect assumptions.”

“Unfortunately, EWG did not take into account the rigorous, science-based methodology used by USDA to determine eligible practices, nor the level of specificity required during the implementation process to ensure the practices’ climate-smart benefits are being maximized,” Rodriguez said in an emailed statement.

The single largest conservation practice funded over the past six years is the use of cover crops, according to EWG, with $505 million (9% of overall funding) going toward the practice. The use of cover crops is widely considered a strongly beneficial practice for soil health and sequestering carbon.

But only one of the other top 10 uses of the money is on the climate-smart list. Six of the new “provisional” practices were also in the top 10.