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USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program Needs Reform to Improve Climate Benefits
Indiana Ag Connection - 11/08/2023

The Department of Agriculture recently announced changes it has made since 2021 to the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, to improve how it can reduce farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions. This includes rewarding farmers who adopt conservation practices that lower emissions or store carbon in soil.

But new research shows the USDA has a long way to go to make the CRP a truly “climate smart” program. The CRP requires farmers to take farmland out of production for a set amount of time and plant grasses, shrubs or trees. Most CRP contracts require land retirement for 10 years, but there are also options for longer retirement of 15 or 30 years. Retiring farmland has benefits for the climate, environment and wildlife.

Recent research shows that if the locations of CRP acres were selected at random, the program would store more carbon in the soil than it does with the CRP acres in their current locations.

As of 2020, the locations of CRP acres likely store 9 percent less carbon in soil than they would if located at random.

This is bad for the program and for the climate. Greenhouse gas contributions from the agricultural industry represent at least 11 percent of all U.S. emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Agriculture’s contribution to the climate crisis is likely much larger than that and expected to grow.

The CRP could be a cornerstone program to help farmers reduce their emissions. But the new research shows the program is not doing a good job of sequestering carbon in soil.

The reason why the CRP is storing less carbon in soil than if the acres were placed randomly has to do with where program acres are concentrated. The Southern Great Plains have a disproportionately high amount of CRP acres, compared to the rest of the country, and the “coarse-textured soils” in this area store carbon poorly.

The research suggests that, to store the most carbon in soil, CRP acres should be concentrated in North Central states like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska and Ohio, and land along the Mississippi River. (See Figure 1.) These areas have soil that is less sandy and more silt loam or silty clay loam, which are better at storing carbon.


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