'Time has come' for U.S. farms to cut methane emissions -Agriculture Secretary

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Nov 3 (Reuters) - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday "the time has come" for American farmers to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by taking advantage of newly announced incentives designed to fight climate change.

Vilsack's Agriculture Department this week unveiled a raft of incentive-based programs for farmers to reduce emissions of potent greenhouse gas methane, including loans and grants for building or improving manure digesters, or transitioning to lower-emission manure management practices like composting.

The programs were part of the White House’s broader methane plan announced Tuesday to coincide with the global climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The plan focused on tough new proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to crack down on methane from the oil and gas industry.

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Agriculture contributes 9.6% to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA, and about 36% of methane emissions, mostly from livestock.

“Agriculture will respond to this because they have historically responded to financial and market incentives,” Vilsack said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday. “They appreciate the time has come.”

Some advocacy groups have slammed the USDA approach. They say money for digesters, which capture methane to produce electricity or natural gas, amounts to a subsidy for the biggest farm polluters.

Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies and climate change at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, said the plan would create “perverse incentives to produce more manure, and more water and air pollution for rural communities.”

Other critics blasted USDA for proposing voluntary programs instead of real regulations like the EPA rules for the oil industry.

"If President Biden is serious about tackling methane, he needs to be serious about regulating industrial animal agriculture," said Chloë Waterman, senior program manager at Friends of the Earth, in a statement.

Vilsack said the agency is balancing the need to reduce methane emissions while ensuring meat and dairy producers can meet global food demand. He also said the agriculture industry is less receptive to regulation than other industries.

“You find significant reluctance to regulation on the farm, but great acceptance of incentives,” he said.

In addition to the incentives, USDA will collect data on farm methane and conduct research on methane reduction strategies, like changing livestock feed to reduce animal emissions. It also announced a $4 billion partnership with the United Arab Emirates to study climate adaptation, and a new collaboration with the European Union.

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Reporting by Leah Douglas; Editing by David Gregorio

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