Regenerative

Grazing NC

Conservation Policy Recommendations

Conservation Policy Recommendations

Establish a conservation database to track outcomes of conservation programs

Summary:

Current program evaluations fail to adequately address the outcomes of various NRCS conservation programs. USDA does not currently mandate that conservation systems measure, evaluate, and report on the outcomes of programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or Conservation Stewardship Program. Despite recommendations from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and marker bills like the Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act, no provisions for a conservation database appeared in the 2018 Farm Bill. USDA should remedy this oversight. A public-outcomes-based accounting system will ensure continuous improvement toward environmental targets and efficient use of taxpayer dollars. For example, an outcomes-based accounting would reward regenerative graziers for the environmental benefits they generate. Compiling the data from existing conservation programs into an evaluable format is also key step to increasing adoption of regenerative farming, as it will allow farmers to crowdsource a list of the best-performing environmental practices on other farms.  In order for farmers to reap these benefits, USDA must establish a comprehensive system to measure, evaluate, and report the outcomes of its conservation programs

 

In 2002, USDA established the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, which focuses on evaluating the impact of conservation programs at the national, regional, and watershed level scales.The determinations of CEAP, however, are unable to be linked to any individual USDA program. CEAP’s authorization has also lapsed, further limiting the relevancy of its findings. Other reviews that attempted to quantify conservation success have also been hampered by a lack of data on environmental outcomes. A review of EQIP by the US Government Accountability Office found that the program consistently awarded funding based on historical precedent, not on perceived environmental benefit or cost effectiveness. The report’s authors identified insufficient data on environmental concerns as the source of this unbalanced allocation. Inadequate data has also hindered USDA’s ability to communicate the value of conservation programs to external stakeholders. In response to private industry’s interest in reducing supply chain GHG emissions, USDA conducted an internal review of the benefits of conservation practices, but ultimately found that large data gaps on environmental outcomes exist, especially for grazing lands. 

 

Regenerative grazing has a particularly acute data gap. While anecdotal benefits of regenerative grazing practices abound, few studies have evaluated the long-term benefits of the practice. Additionally, there is currently no Conservation Practice Standard specifically focused on regenerative grazing (see Further Research), making it difficult to quantify the practice’s benefits and harder for farmers to receive compensation for the ecosystem services they provide through regenerative grazing. Accurate data accounting would also position regenerative graziers to eventually receive compensation for their practices, whether that stems from increased accessibility to grant funding or carbon crediting. Regional data gaps also exist. Most of the research on regenerative grazing has thus far focused on its applications in California and the Mountain West. Montana, for example, has benefited from a collaboration with Western Sustainability Exchange to sample more than 200 sites across the state and develop a state specific GHG reduction model. In contrast, no regenerative grazing protocols currently exist for the Southeast region. More research is also needed on how regenerative grazing might confer ecosystem services in different climates, such as water infiltration rates for flood prone areas or water retention during periods of drought. Robust tracking of conservation outcomes would allow NRCS to pinpoint a set of regenerative grazing best practices that can then be tailored regionally. 

 

Correcting the data gaps for regenerative grazing is possible with policy measures that direct USDA to create a measuring, evaluating, and reporting system. An initiative under the bipartisan Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act of 2018 proposed authorizing USDA to track the effectiveness of conservation programs. Specifically, the proposal directed USDA to continually update environmental objectives for conservation programs, measure changes that resulted from implementation of conservation practices, and create a department-wide evaluation system to track progress towards conservation objectives. The bill also proposed authorizing USDA to make de-identified conservation data publicly available, which could then be used by governmental agencies, universities, and NGOs to assist with the monitoring and evaluation process. Although the Healthy Food and Farm Economies Act was not enacted, the 2018 Farm Bill did contain a requirement that USDA compile Conservation Innovation Grant reports in order to develop a conversation practice database. This established an important precedent that should be extended to all other conservation programs.  

Recommendations:

  1. USDA should develop and implement a reporting and evaluation tool for individual conservation programs.

  2. NRCS should use results from the evaluation tool to shift funding toward the most cost-effective conservation practices.

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