USDA, Climate Change, and Regenerative Agriculture

In the U.S. food and agriculture sector, the United States Department of Agriculture is perceived as an 800 pound gorilla with significant influence over the direction of U.S. agriculture. The department includes 29 agencies, nearly 100,000 employees, and a $153 billion annual budget (roughly 80% of that budget is for food assistance). While USDA cannot set the future of U.S. agriculture, it certainly has an influence.

USDA leadership led with a climate change-skeptical perspective during the Trump Administration and made headlines in 2019 for burying several peer-reviewed studies and a USDA multiyear plan on how the department could understand, adapt and minimize the effects of climate change. 

USDA’s relative silence on climate change may soon change. The Climate 21 Project collaborated with three former USDA officials to provide a concrete, pragmatic memo that offers steps for the USDA to address agriculture’s contributions and risks from climate change.

As one would hope, many of the recommendations advance principles of regenerative agriculture. The memo highlights policy options such as a carbon bank, crop insurance reform, and carbon-focused conservation programs, all of which can build soil organic carbon. Rural development programs can incentivize production of clean energy technology and low-carbon bioenergy. The enormous infrastructure of USDA – from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to the messaging used by the USDA Secretary – all can be harnessed to support a regenerative and climate-adapted agriculture.

The direction of U.S. agriculture cannot turn on a dime; it slowly changes course more like an enormous ocean liner that requires plenty of lead time. As climate change experts have consistently warned that time is running short, the steps proposed in the Climate 21 memo are important, pragmatic, and hopefully just a first step in a more comprehensive effort for USDA to address climate change and advance regenerative agriculture.