After three years of sidelining climate change research and thinning its roster of scientists, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new five-year scientific plan this week to help American farmers cope with the worsening effects of the climate crisis.
The "USDA Science Blueprint" was unveiled at a conference Wednesday by Scott Hutchins, a former pesticide industry executive who heads the agency's research divisions. The plan, intended to guide "USDA's science priorities," lays out a broad agenda across a range of areas, from soil health to weather impacts on agriculture to data collection, and specifically mentions climate change.
The new plan, welcomed by advocacy groups and the industry, represents a hopeful sign that the agency will realign its research priorities, especially in the wake of a series of weather disasters that have battered American farms and cost billions.
"Climate change requires urgent attention, and farmers and their communities have woken up to this fact," said Ricardo Salvador, senior scientist and director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It is refreshing to see the USDA under Secretary Perdue—who has previously denied the reality of climate change—acknowledging that agriculture is a contributor to climate change, can also be part of the solution, and must adapt in any case."
But critics question how the agency will follow through. The plan, they say, pushes an agenda that fails to fundamentally change an agricultural system that degrades soil health, continues to emit greenhouse gases at a growing rate, and relies heavily on fossil fuels, chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.
Lew Ziska, a former USDA researcher who left the agency last year after officials tried to sideline his research showing that nutrient levels in rice are dropping as carbon emissions rise, said of the new the plan: "Overall, nice brochure, pretty pix, and nice objectives, but I am extremely skeptical that their objectives will be accomplished."
From the onset of the Trump administration, top officials have come under fire for thwarting climate change research and priorities across the agency. In the earliest days of the administration, employees were coached to avoid the term "climate change" by agency officials, who said the issue was no longer a priority. Over the course of the next three years, the agency made a series of decisions that undermined research, including ordering researchers to include a disclaimer on research published outside the agency saying that it was "preliminary."
Perhaps most damaging, agency employees say, was the decision by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to move two research divisions, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), out of the Washington area — an effort seen by many as a deliberate tactic to thin the ranks of agency scientists. If it was such a tactic, it worked: In the months leading up to the move, nearly two-thirds of the divisions' researchers retired or left. Meanwhile, the administration has cut funding for the agency's research divisions.
"The elephant in the blueprint is of course that USDA Secretary Perdue has been fairly systematically working to weaken the Department's scientific capacity, moving two of the key agencies involved in this report out of Washington, DC, knowing that it would lose many employees in the process," said Ben Lilliston, director of rural policies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a progressive advocacy group.
Lilliston added, "Perdue has also been an outspoken skeptic of climate risk, so while it's good to see climate adaptation acknowledged as a priority it is undercut by the messaging coming from the Department's leadership and President Trump."
Ziska noted that the agency's Agricultural Research Service has lost 20 percent of its budget since the early 2000's.
"The forced relocation of ERS and NIFA will, without question, make implementation of these goals difficult," Ziska wrote in an email, referring to the new plan.
The plan outlines five themes, including climate adaptation and "sustainable intensification"—a term that describes increasing productivity within the current agricultural system. It then describes briefly how specific goals—for example, understanding how conservation practices on farms can help boost resilience to climate change—will be addressed and measured. The agency will "solicit stakeholder input" in reaching the plan's goals from "commodity groups, industry, interagency Federal working groups, scientific societies, and university partners," the plan says.
Progressive farm groups that have advocated for more support for climate-focused practices, either in research or policy, were not included in meetings reportedly held by the USDA this week in which agency officials, commodity groups and food manufacturers discussed "sustainability."
The agency did not immediately respond to requests for information on the meetings.
The release of the plan came amid a flurry of climate-focused activity by government leaders, agriculture industry groups and even former Vice President Al Gore, who has become a vocal booster of agriculture's role in solving the climate crisis.
Gore addressed a meeting held by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in Washington, where he was the keynote speaker. (The USDA's plan was announced at the same event.)
"If we can find out how to reliably measure soil carbon, the reliable sequestration of carbon in soils, then it is not impossible to imagine a day when farmers receive payments for the carbon they have sequestered in their soil," Gore said. Soils, including those in the rich farmlands of the Midwest, act as carbon sinks by trapping carbon dioxide, a capacity researchers say will be critical for meeting global emissions reductions targets.
Gore has become an advocate of agriculture's role in carbon markets, in which farmers would sell credits for sequestering carbon in soils. That concept, which gained traction a decade ago, was beaten back at the time by the fossil fuel industry and one of its strongest allies, the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The idea of farmers participating in carbon markets is increasingly coming under scrutiny by some progressive farm groups who say that they could prevent true, meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. But the industry has started to embrace the idea, especially if it can boost farm incomes in a wobbly farm economy. The Farm Bureau, at its recent annual meeting, adopted a resolution supporting research into soil health — a key requirement for maintaining soil's ability to trap carbon.
Also at this week's conference, FFAR and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, an agricultural industry public relations group that represent the producers of the county's most lucrative farm products, like corn and beef, unveiled a new climate-focused collaboration among industry players. The partnership will "foster collaboration between farmers, ranchers, scientists and others from across the food and agriculture sectors to address greenhouse gas emissions in a coordinated way, as a united front," said the FFAR's executive director, Sally Rockey, in a press release.
The industry has long pushed against any kind of measurement of greenhouse gases from agriculture or environmental regulation, frequently saying farms are too complicated and varied.
"No two farms are alike which means the path to climate-smart farming may look a little, or a lot, different from farm to farm," said Erin Fitzgerald, USFRA's chief executive officer, in a press release this week.