Two news stories this week — one that made headlines, and one that got less attention — point to the fiendish difficulty of reinventing agriculture to reduce its heavy toll on the climate.

The first development: The New York attorney general Letitia James, fresh off a $450 million civil verdict against Donald Trump, announced a lawsuit against JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company, for making misleading statements about its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

James’s lawsuit said that JBS has “used greenwashing and misleading statements to capitalize on consumers’ increasing desire to make environmentally friendly choices,” with statements such as: “Agriculture can be part of the climate solution. Bacon, chicken wings, and steak with net zero emissions. It’s possible.”

The lawsuit cited David Gelles’s interview with Gilberto Tomazoni, the chief executive of JBS, at our Climate Forward event in September in which he said: “We pledge to be net zero in 2040.”

James argues the company can’t possibly achieve net zero “because there are no proven agricultural practices to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions” at the company’s vast scale, at least without costly efforts to offset its emissions.

JBS is a gigantic company, but the issues raised in the lawsuit against its U.S. arm are even fundamental: Is there even a path to net zero agriculture, especially if people are determined to keep large quantities of meat in their diets?

The second development this week speaks to that problem: A new report found that the United States is spending billions of dollars to try to slash greenhouse gas emissions from farms. Sounds great, but there’s a hitch: much of the money may go to projects that won’t necessarily serve that goal.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that conducted the research, said that the United States Department of Agriculture is poised to fund a number of unproven practices. Those include installing new irrigation systems, despite the harm they can cause to groundwater supplies, and building infrastructure to contain animal waste, which could in fact lead to more emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases.

Allan Rodriguez, a U.S.D.A. spokesman, said in a statement that the EWG report is “fundamentally flawed” because it “did not take into account the rigorous, science-based methodology used by USDA to determine eligible practices” or the level of specificity that is required for some practices to receive climate funding.

Anne Schechinger, the author of the EWG report, told me that she is still waiting for the U.S.D.A. to share its sources and data that would justify the climate-smart designation.

Even setting aside that particular dispute, one thing is clear: There is a huge knowledge gap in our efforts to transform agriculture. Measuring agricultural emissions is a lot more complex than monitoring power plants and tailpipes. That makes it hard for any government to measure how well such techniques are working — or if in some cases they’re actually doing more harm than good.

“The pace at which these strategies are being implemented is greatly outpacing the speed at which the science, knowledge necessary to understand their effectiveness is being generated,” said Kim Novick, an environmental scientist at Indiana University who studies carbon in agricultural systems. “Until we close that gap, it’s really a lot of putting the cart before the horse.”

Farming accounts for about a third of the world’s carbon emissions, and a 10th of America’s. But we still know shockingly little about how to reduce its toll on the climate and vulnerable ecosystems.

I spoke to a number of experts for this newsletter. Though some of them were generally supportive of investing in some climate-smart practices, they told me that even practices that are generally recognized as good for the climate still have unclear benefits.

Take cover crops, one of the most accepted climate-smart farming practices. These are legumes and other species that are planted after the harvest of cash crops, such as corn, to help nourish the soil and improve water quality.

Most people agree that implementing cover crops on a large scale could help reduce emissions. But those conclusions rely on a relatively small amount of data, Novick told me.

The Inflation Reduction Act and other funding streams are directing hundreds of millions of dollars to improve data and models. That, the U.S.D.A. spokesman said, will “ensure that future resources are directed to the most effective practices.”

Doria Gordon, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund, told me she is excited about “the unprecedented level of funding” the agriculture sector is getting to become more sustainable and that many practices the U.S.D.A. is supporting should have climate benefits if implemented at scale.

Still, she would like the agency to take its efforts to collect data further. There is also “an equally unprecedented opportunity” to close the knowledge gap, she said. “This really is a once in-a-lifetime chance to advance our understanding of these emerging solutions.”

The Biden administration on Thursday said it was opening an investigation into whether internet-connected Chinese cars might pose a national security threat. It could be the first step toward blocking the sale of Chinese cars and trucks — including a coming wave of low-cost electric vehicles.

Concerns about security threats from China are running high. Relations between the two countries remain testy, and American lawmakers are already taking steps to block other popular Chinese imports, including TikTok.

But it’s impossible to understand the opening of the investigation without also considering China’s dominance in climate-friendly technologies, including solar panels and EVs.

As Robinson Meyer wrote in the Times Opinion section earlier this week, U.S. automakers are facing an onslaught of low-priced Chinese EVs. “BYD and other Chinese automakers like Geely, which owns Volvo Cars and Polestar brands, are very good at making cars,” he wrote. “They have leveraged China’s dominance of the battery industry and automated production lines to create a juggernaut.”

China’s BYD leapfrogged Tesla to become the biggest maker of EVs in the world last year, and this month unveiled a plug-in hybrid that cost just $11,000. Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — the company behind Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep — simply can’t compete with that.

The Biden administration has shown that it is eager to boost the U.S. clean-energy manufacturing industry. It has been trying to crack down on cheap Chinese solar panels that it says are evading tariffs. And it has been pouring trillions of dollars into domestic factories and infrastructure.

Opening an investigation, which could lead to tariffs or import bans, may be framed as a matter of national security. But even Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a pro-labor group, was quick to acknowledge that the move was about economic competition, too.

“We agree that the data security of connected vehicles is an issue critical to national security, especially when manufactured by companies based in China,” he said in a statement. “We also believe more will need to be done to stem the threat of Chinese autos to our national and economic security, which is why we have called for a broad range of measures, including higher tariffs and limiting EV tax credits.” — David Gelles


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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