Agriculture’s Climate Solutions in the News

Posted on Monday, May 20th, 2019 by Renata Brillinger
CalCAN farmer and rancher partners

In recent weeks, several large news outlets have covered agriculture’s climate solutions and included CalCAN and our partners’ efforts to advance policy for scaling up those solutions. Below is an opinion column by Jacques Leslie that ran in the Los Angeles times on May 13, 2013, followed by a letter to the editor by CalCAN Executive Director Renata Brillinger published in the New York Times on May 15, 2019.

Find excerpts from recent NPR Environment and USA TODAY articles in another recent blog. Visit our In the News page for a full list of recent media coverage of CalCAN and our partners.

Reducing our Carbon Mouthprint: Food and Climate

New York Times – May 15, 2019

A flurry of stories in The Times covers many aspects of the link between climate change and agriculture. This growing awareness makes it increasingly possible to pass public policy to encourage farming practices that benefit the environment rather than harming it.

Several states are doing just that. California has a suite of programs that subsidize farmers to sequester carbon in soil, conserve water and reduce methane emissions on dairies, investing more than $300 million to date. New Mexico just established a Healthy Soils Initiative to accelerate soil health practices, and Massachusetts is debating a bill to do the same. New York has a Climate Resilient Farming Program that gives grants to farmers.

These types of farmer-centered, incentive-based, state-level programs could unleash the power of farms and ranches to curb our ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Renata Brillinger
Sebastopol, Calif.
The writer is executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network.

To learn about CalCAN’s work coordinating with a host of farmer-centered organizations working to advance soil health policies in states across the nation, visit our National Networks page.

California is making a weak effort to turn agriculture into a climate change fix

LA Times – May 13, 2019

Agriculture generates 9% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it the state’s fourth-largest emitter, after transportation, industry and buildings. But agriculture — often seen as an enemy of the environment — is the only one of these sectors with the potential to also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Healthy soil teems with life — more than a billion microorganisms per teaspoon — along with, crucially, carbon. Unfortunately, tilled soil releases a lot of that carbon, which combines with oxygen to add CO2 to the atmosphere. What’s called regenerative or carbon-focused farming — composting, minimizing tillage, using cover crops and crop rotation, planting hedgerows and windbreaks to foster biodiversity and cut down on blowing soil, and retaining crop residue on farmland — can slow the carbon loss and even pull it, through photosynthesis, from the atmosphere into vegetation and soil. That “draw down” capacity is a crucial tool in the struggle to limit climate change, and, for California, in its attempt to meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045.

Science shows that carbon-focused farming can also improve crop yields and livestock health⁠, increase crop resilience to drought, reduce erosion and flooding, improve soil water-holding capacity and allow farmers to cut back on the use of synthetic fertilizers. Over time, these practices can lower costs for farmers, and by building resilience in crops, they may also reduce federal crop insurance payouts, saving taxpayers money.

Rattan Lal, an Ohio State University soil scientist, calls regenerative agriculture a “win-win-win option.” But, he says, its advantages are “not widely understood by policymakers and the general public” — and even most farmers.

One indication of the general incomprehension is the tepid support that California officials have given to regenerative farming. The state began providing grants to farmers and researchers for implementing and demonstrating carbon-focused practices in 2017. The budget for the Healthy Soils Program was just $7.5 million. That same year, California spent $165 million on electric car rebates.

The soils program also obligated farmers to fill out maddeningly complex grant applications, not something required to collect a car rebate. CalCAN, the nonprofit California Climate and Agriculture Network, reported on the outcome: Nearly 400 farmers and ranchers attended government- and nonprofit-sponsored workshops designed to explain how Healthy Soils would work, and 175 started the application process. But only 96 completed it, largely because of the application’s complexity and the time needed to fill it out.

In January, state agencies outlined two scenarios of varying degrees of ambition to increase carbon-focused farming in California. The more ambitious, but still modest, plan envisioned engaging 1 million acres of farmland — roughly 4% of the state’s agricultural acreage — by 2030, at a cost of $36.3 million⁠ a year. Add to that money for demonstration projects and technical assistance, and CalCAN calculates a total investment of around $50 million a year. Yet Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has referred to healthy soils as an “interesting passion of mine,” is budgeting just $28 million for the effort.

Photo credit: Paige Green
Carbon Cycle Institute collaborates with a number of farmers and ranchers throughout California to prepare and implement carbon farm plans. Pictured above: Lani Estill of Bare Ranch in Modoc County, CA. Read about their innovative partnership with Fibershed and the North Face to create a market for Lani’s climate-beneficial wool. 

As Jeff Creque, agricultural director at the Carbon Cycle Institute, which promotes carbon-focused agriculture, told me, the state should instead be aiming to engage 3% of its agricultural land annually, so that by 2050 all of the state’s 25 million acres of agricultural land becomes a net carbon sink — that’s the kind of commitment needed to meet the state’s decarbonization goals.

This kind of agricultural transformation won’t be simple. For starters, most farmers aren’t swayed by emphasis on climate benefits. They need to know that the transition won’t bankrupt them, and that it could ultimately lead to higher profits or other farmland benefits. And while the principles of carbon-focused agriculture are settled science, implementing them in California requires more research and experimentation. Even buttressed with a solid knowledge base, a farm’s successful transition to carbon-focused practices can take several years.

The state should be going all out to fund and support research and outreach, and to provide technical support for farmers willing to make the shift.

“Over and over again, as producers become familiar with carbon farming,” Creque said, “we’ve watched the light bulbs go on in their heads as they begin to understand the benefits to their agricultural operations.”

Anthropogenic climate change isn’t just a fossil fuel problem. Ancient farmers took the first steps towards the current climate crisis simply by tilling soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Some 12,000 years later, it’s both urgent and appropriate for farmers to get a chance to put it back.

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