Petition Seeks Data, Stronger Criteria for USDA’s ‘Climate-Smart’ Investments

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WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and partners petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture today to improve transparency regarding the Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities program and ensure billions of taxpayer dollars aren’t spent on programs that actually harm the climate.

Since 2022, the USDA has invested more than $3.1 billion through the Partnerships program, aimed at helping 141 agricultural and forestry projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote “climate-smart” products. However, recently announced cutbacks to data sharing under the program and uncertainty about how projects qualify for funding threaten to undermine its success.

“The USDA absolutely needs to tackle the climate crisis, but if the agency doesn’t gather enough data to learn what works and what doesn’t, it risks wasting that much-needed effort and worsening the problem,” said Benjamin Rankin, an attorney at the Center. “The department needs to include more stakeholders, experts and the public and stop ignoring critical information that can help identify and encourage the best climate solutions.”

The petition, filed by the Center, University of Iowa professor Silvia Secchi, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, asks USDA to explain how data are collected and reported through the Partnerships program and to solicit public comment on what should be gathered and shared moving forward.

It also asks the agency to establish clear methods for selecting and evaluating the success of “climate-smart” projects. Several funded projects involve practices that increase greenhouse gas emissions, including cattle grazing, timber operations and biogas. This underscores the need for a data-driven evaluation of the program.

“Through this program, USDA has funded companies that have been responsible for unsustainable practices, so it’s critical to know how and where the money is being spent,” said Silvia Secchi, a professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences at the University of Iowa. “It’s also important to understand how USDA is measuring and monitoring success, since partial indicators can mask industry-wide harms, like promoting the expansion of confined livestock operators, which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.”

Agriculture is responsible for more than one-tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest emitter of methane and nitrous oxide in the United States. These gases have more than 80 and 270 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over 20 years, respectively.

“The USDA has made a substantial public investment that could be enormously valuable for farmers and the climate if the results are publicly shared,” said Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Without substantial and clear reporting on outcomes, the program risks becoming a series of one-off projects that don’t propel us toward a less emitting, more climate resilient system that works for farmers.”

Farmers are already experiencing harms from climate change in the United States, including degraded soils, precipitation changes, worsening pests and diseases, reduced yields and disrupted growing seasons.

A 2021 executive order said farmers have an “important role to play in combating the climate crisis and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Since its inception, a core purpose of the Partnerships program has been to get farmers to measure, quantify, monitor and verify the benefits of their own practices to mitigate climate change.