Spotlight on Climate & Agriculture

Posted on Thursday, August 19th, 2010 by Jeanne Merrill

Agriculture has much to lose as the climate changes. Climate change is a serious threat to the business of growing food, and this should worry anyone that earns a living from the land (as well as everyone that eats). California farmers are already hurting, here and now, and agriculture is too important for us to stand by as things get worse.

Every week there’s something in the news about water scarcity in the Central Valley, freak late spring chills, new pests that threaten whole industries, old pests advancing on new territory. While individual weather events are impossible to link to climate change directly, we do know that the weather is getting stranger and climate scientists say we’re headed for more extreme weather events in the decades to come. Climate change will mean exactly that: change. Climate change means instability, and that’s no good at all for pest management, irrigation planning, or planting decisions.

Climate change means that California will get more rain than snow in the winter, the Sierra Nevada snowpack will shrink, and therefore less water will be available in later months when we need it most. Climate change means that within our children’s lifetimes, some crops — including many key perennials like avocadoes, nuts, grapes, and stone fruit — may become difficult or impossible to grow in some parts of the state as winter chilling hours are reduced. Higher overall temperatures and elevated carbon dioxide levels mean that weeds and insects will thrive and migrate north. More frequent extreme weather events like droughts (pdf), heat waves, late frosts, and flooding will likely affect all sectors of the industry.

Agriculture has contributed its share to greenhouse gas emissions (on the global level, agriculture accounts for 13.5% of greenhouse gas emissions and here it California agriculture accounts for 6% of the state’s emissions). But there is good news: California agriculture has a whole lot to contribute to climate change mitigation. There are real, concrete steps that can be taken right now that will both ensure the viability of agriculture moving forward and reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long term. With the right kind of public support, California agriculture can actually be an important part of the solution.

It is time to stand up, get creative, and support California’s farmers in their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

CalCAN is working to create incentives for all kinds of climate-friendly farming practices:

  • On-farm renewable energy production — Solar PV paired with large farm buildings, small and mid-scale wind projects paired with ranch and marginal lands, biogas generators paired with dairies, and biomass generators paired with processing operations are just some of the low-hanging fruit for helping California build a stable and diverse renewable energy mix.
  • Energy and water efficiency on farms — Although California has done great work encouraging energy efficiency on farms and ranches, we still have a long way to go.
  • Building organic soil matter to “sink” carbon — Reducing synthetic fertilizer inputs, employing cover crops, planting out fallow land, perennial cropping, and conservation tillage all sequester carbon.
  • Using organic farming — Organic farming systems offer some of the best opportunities to reduce emissions and sequester carbon.
  • Managing livestock and rangelands — Planting trees on rangeland can increase carbon sequestration, and feeding cattle a primarily grass diet can also reduce their direct methane emissions.
  • Preserving farmland — Farmland can provide numerous climate benefits, including the ability to sequester carbon, preserve open space, absorb and filter water, and continue to feed a growing population from stable, local sources.

All human activity is ultimately dependent on reasonably predictable weather patterns and reliable natural resources, but agriculture’s vulnerability to climate instability is truly unique in its immediacy.

Can the agricultural community mobilize in its own self-interest to support climate change mitigation? Can California provide the right mix of incentives and support to energize agriculture as a key piece of the solution? We think that California can.

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