As public and private investments in climate-smart agriculture increase, we risk excluding the very leaders who blazed the trail for the expansion of climate-smart agriculture.
Early innovators are our leaders in conservation agriculture – they have tested and developed new climate-smart practices, proved their efficacy and long-term profitability, and paved the way for others to follow. Although early innovators shouldered the risk and, in many cases, the cost of establishing climate-smart agricultural practices, newcomers to climate-smart agriculture are now better positioned to participate in programs looking for new carbon sequestration and emissions reductions. This begs the question: How do we create a system that ensures farmers who have transitioned to climate-smart agricultural practices will maintain practices over the long-term, while continuing to improve and innovate?
CFAD proposes that the most sustainable and influential way to maintain and expand climate-smart agricultural practices is to build the business case for conservation adoption. This can be done by embedding incentives for the adoption and maintenance of climate-smart agricultural practices throughout agricultural markets, finance systems, regulatory processes, and insurance programs. These strategies will benefit both early innovators and those new to climate-smart agricultural practices.
Our recommendations for creating this system include the following:
- The USDA Economic Research Service should conduct a literature review of existing research to understand the economics around producer motivations for implementing and maintaining climate-smart practices.
- The Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP) should recognize the risk-reducing benefits of conservation practices.
- Agricultural lenders should recognize the economic benefits of conservation practice adoption, including improved soil health and reduced agricultural risk, when offering loan terms to producers.
- USDA should continue to explore the development of climate-smart commodity markets that reward early innovators through new market mechanisms. Supporting markets that preference agricultural commodities produced using practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon would strengthen the business case for climate-smart agriculture.
- Ecosystem markets that allow producers to generate both carbon credits and other ecosystem services credits from the same project should be explored to create stacked incentives to expand and maintain existing conservation practices.
- Food and beverage companies should consider how early innovators can be included in supply chain sustainability programs to reduce scope 3 emissions
- USDA and Congress should systematically work to expand and improve existing conservation programs, drawing on CFAD’s recommendations for investing in working lands conservation.
- USDA should offer technical assistance to states that wish to create programs that give producers who adopt or have adopted climate-smart agricultural practices regulatory certainty on compliance with environmental safeguard policies (e.g., Clean Water Act requirements, Endangered Species Act).
While carbon markets offer one pathway to reward innovators of climate–smart practices, there are many other tools, even in the face of limited resources, that can be utilized to recognize and reward the work of agriculture’s conservation leaders. We need to use a variety of tools and applications to reward climate–smart agriculture – no single tool will work for all producers and production systems. Only by constructing an agricultural system that consistently rewards conservation adoption will we be successful in expanding climate–smart agriculture at the magnitude required to help mitigate climate change.
Recognizing Early Innovators: Our Recommendations for Maintaining and Expanding Climate-Smart Agriculture Practices
Our assessment of the early innovator issue and recommendations for building the business case for adopting and maintaining climate-smart agriculture.