Editor’s Desk: How smart is climate-smart ag?

Manure is put in a digester at Vanguard Renewables in Haverhill, Massachusetts on Jan. 28, 2019. Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

By Brent Cunningham

For several years now, reporter Gabriel Popkin has been raising questions about the efficacy of some of “climate-smart” agriculture’s main strategies, from cover crops to no-till. Popkin drew on that reporting for a piece we published last week, in partnership with Yale Environment 360, that cast a skeptical eye on one of the pillars of President Biden’s climate agenda—the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

USDA estimates that the $3-billion program will, over the five-year life of the projects, eliminate or sequester the equivalent of 60 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by paying growers to use cover crops, manage manure better, plant trees, and employ other measures. 

But, as Popkin writes, “Some researchers fear that the agency lacks a workable plan for measuring and verifying the impacts of the practices federal dollars will be paying for. Others say science has yet to prove that climate-smart practices truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another story we published last week, this one with The Washington Post, came at climate-change from a different, quirkier angle: how to stem the growing number of megafires in our forests. The answer? Mushrooms. 

Thinning forests to prevent fires leaves behind a lot of woody debris, called “slash,” that itself poses a fire risk. But, as Stephen Robert Miller explains, scientists are inoculating the slash with fungi, which transform it into nutrient-rich soil that can then be used by local farmers. It’s the kind of climate-solution story that we like: practical, efficient, and grounded in science.

Climate change, and the efforts to mitigate it, is a seemingly endless story, and arguably the most important one we cover. So we appreciate support from readers like you. We couldn’t do it without you.