Weather Extremes Signal Need for Bold Action to Transform California Agriculture

It seems like not a day goes by without a report from somewhere in the world of an extreme weather event.  A couple weeks ago an unusually early winter storm in New England dumped two feet of snow, cut power to millions, and caused death for some. Last week, Alaska’s Pacific Coast was slammed by a so-called “monster” storm that devastated coastal villages and threatened Nome with flooding and high winds. Last spring and summer, unusually powerful tornadoes wrecked destruction and death across wide sections of the Great Plains and South. An on-going drought in the Southwestern United States continues to threaten crops and livestock.

All this extreme weather can’t help but raise the specter of climate change as a primary cause. Quite simply, a warming atmosphere fueled by increasing greenhouse gas emissions is creating dangerous weather. Sadly, the news on the emissions front seems to be going from bad to worse. Last week the US Department of Energy reported that carbon emissions worldwide made their biggest annual increase ever in 2010. That report was followed by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that it’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Index was also on the rise.

Looking at these distressing reports, the phrase that comes to mind is the Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared.”  Be prepared for weirder, wackier, more extreme weather as we continue to load the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases.

At the California Climate and Agriculture Network, we do a good bit of thinking about just exactly how we might prepare ourselves to face this on-going global crisis. Data analyzed in the report Ready… Or Not? tells a disturbing story —  California farmers and ranchers will not escape climate change effects, and there are insufficient resources available help them cope.

A diminished Sierra snowpack will melt earlier, causing flooding in the spring and reducing water supplies over the summer. Scientists predict chill hours ­­— the time fruit and nut trees need to spend in cooler temperatures to produce fruit — will decline dramatically over the next several decades.  A drop in chill hours will threaten key California crops like nuts, grapes, stone fruit, avocadoes and some wine grape varietals.

State livestock producers, who generated $8 billion in revenues in 2009, will also face challenges. Water shortages will cut animal productivity. More livestock will die. Those that live will lose appetite, produce less milk and fewer eggs, and be less able to reproduce. None of this news is good.

California agriculture contributes $37 billion dollars annually to the state economy. Our farms and ranches are among the most productive on the planet. Clearly, we need to increase our efforts to slow and ultimately reverse this damage. We can’t afford to wait.

Concerns over the agricultural impact of climate change are gaining traction with state policy makers. The California State Board of Food and Agriculture will host a forum in mid-November to learn more about the risks our food producers face due to extreme weather events. In December, Governor Brown will host a conference on confronting climate change. We need to start now and we need bold action to help our food producers and the state’s agricultural economy meet the climate change threat.

Food producers are skilled at adapting to difficult circumstances, and the most innovative growers can lead the way to greater resilience. They know that healthy soil and expansive rangeland can trap carbon and slow climate change.  They understand that on-farm water storage can help alleviate summer shortages. Crop diversity can reduce pest damage. Agricultural waste can be transformed into an energy resource.

But given the magnitude of the expected impacts of climate change, California’s farmers and ranchers will need more than individual actions if our agriculture system is to thrive in the coming decades. More research is needed to identify the best farming practices for adapting to climate change. More technical assistance is needed to help farmers make transitions. A state-level conservation program is needed to reward those farmers who adopt new, more resilient food production systems. CalCAN has detailed these and other suggested changes in a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to the Brown Administration.

Funds to support these initiatives could be provided by tapping a percentage of state revenue garnered through the sale of carbon allowances to the biggest CO2 emitters. Strengthening support for on-farm conservation efforts is also crucial. On-going efforts to encourage renewable energy production through grant support and better policies and programs could reduce grower dependence on fossil fuels.

The challenges of extreme weather and climate change are daunting; the stakes for California’s food production system are high. Bold, innovative programs are needed now to help ensure a thriving farm economy.

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