New Research on Climate-Smart Agriculture

Courtesy: Dr. Christopher Gambino. Dr. Christopher Gambino, an assistant professor of animal science at Delaware Valley University.

Sep 23, 2019

Less attention has been given to the impact of piecing together smaller solutions and programs to address climate change. Many people want one big solution. Since major policy changes are likely to take time, what can be done now? How can policymakers and producers use the programs that are currently available within agriculture and forestry in the U.S. to create more of an impact? 

Those are some of the questions that are addressed in a new article published in Climate Policy, a peer-reviewed journal. The article, “Piecemeal or Combined? Assessing Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Spillovers in U.S. Forest and Agriculture Policy Portfolios,” examines the impacts of running three different greenhouse gas mitigation programs individually and simultaneously. The work was funded by a USDA cooperative agreement.

Dr. Christopher Gambino, an assistant professor of animal science at Delaware Valley University, co-authored the article with Dr. Christopher S. Galik from North Carolina State University and Dr. Gregory S. Latta from the University of Idaho.

“Historically, climate policy analyses have focused on big changes, like a carbon tax or price,” said Dr. Gambino. “Far less attention has been devoted to how a combination of solutions could be deployed in the meantime. Mostly, due to what researchers have termed the panacea bias, those who want climate change addressed through policies get stuck in thinking there’s only one big, sweeping solution. We wanted to look at what we can do in the interim, or even in the absence of such a policy.”

According to the article, “increased near-term greenhouse gas mitigation (GHG) in the forest and agriculture sectors in the U.S. may be possible by expanding or refocusing the emphasis of existing programs.” The team also found that running programs simultaneously may lead to greater greenhouse gas mitigation than when programs are implemented separately. 

The team used the USDA’s 2015 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry, a document that has 10 existing programs that have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the work. Of the 10, they chose to compare the impacts of nitrogen stewardship (reducing emissions from fertilizer use), conservation of sensitive lands, and private forest growth and retention.

They used the Forest and Agricultural Sector Optimization Model - Greenhouse Gas Version (FASOM-GHG), a mathematical programming model that makes land-use decisions based on optimizing a landowner’s or producer’s profit. FASOM-GHG was used to simulate and compare the future potential outcomes of implementing the three building blocks they selected.

They found that if the three building blocks are run simultaneously, there may be some added greenhouse gas mitigation. For example, in model years 2015 to 2020 and 2040 to 2045, they saw greater emissions reductions and from 2025 to 2030 fewer additional emissions. 

Yet these national changes can obscure important regional shifts. For example, the South Central region of the U.S. was projected to achieve the greatest increase in GHG mitigation from 2015 to 2025, but transitions to a large emission source relative to the base case from 2025 to 2030. 

The results of the simultaneously run model will provide great insight for policymakers. The team also saw strong potential in nitrogen stewardship. This program on its own led to large GHG emissions reductions and a small amount of additional emissions.
According to Dr. Gambino, spending on the simultaneous implementation would cost the least from a state or federal government perspective, as shown in the paper’s comparative carbon price, but nitrogen stewardship comes in at a close second.

Because of these results, Dr. Gambino said, “The nitrogen scenario, if you had to pick one, is the best of the voluntary programs we looked at.”

He said the team wanted to look at nitrogen stewardship because “it has been a policy on the table to think about.”

Dr. Gambino said that the conservation of sensitive lands and private forest growth and retention building blocks face challenges related to reversion. 

“We noticed the biggest GHG swings, between mitigation to emissions source, resulted from forested land-use changes,” said Dr. Gambino. “When forested or conservation land contracts are up, the land may be used for a different purpose. We can end up losing the carbon that was sequestered when the land reverts. And we can get additional emissions depending on what the new land use is.”

For agriculture producers who want to invest in changes that would have the greatest positive impact, Dr. Gambino suggests looking at fertilizer use.

“The biggest win-win for the producer is cutting fertilizer use – the right type, at the right time, at the right rate – which will save them money and reduce nitrous oxide emissions coming from their fields,” said Dr. Gambino. 

For policymakers, he suggests avoiding policy planning based on adding up potential program benefits, because the simultaneous implementation can have positive or negative spillovers. These spillovers can create more or less GHG mitigation – which cannot be accounted for without modeling the options. Positive spillovers can actually make GHG mitigation cheaper than it looks on paper for each individual program. 

For more information, please visit