California has recently begun planning an ambitious research slate on climate change issues, covering ways to reduce carbon emissions as well as increase the resiliency of our business sectors and natural systems.
CalCAN has been weighing in on this process. Our goal is to make sure that the research being pursued appropriately incorporates the multiple climate solutions that sustainable, low-input and biological-based agricultural systems can provide.
Fourth Climate Change Assessment: Spotlight on Soils
Earlier this year, the Legislature appropriated $5 million to the Natural Resources Agency to undertake a Fourth Climate Change Assessment for California. This portfolio of research projects will investigate climate change impacts and the actions that can be taken to address them.
A total of six agriculture-related research projects are proposed, with combined draft budgets of over $1 million. What’s more, the projects were proposed by a diverse set of state agencies with various jurisdictions and directives, including the Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the Department of Conservation (DOC), CalRecycle, and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
This is an important continuation of funding that ended in 2012 under the PIER program, which left a gap in crucial climate change and agriculture research funding. Once approved, the proposed projects will be open to a competitive granting process to carry out the actual research.
The Fourth Assessment research would take a particular focus on the climate benefits of compost application and other soil management techniques.
Two proposals from the Department of Conservation will investigate the best techniques and feasibility of sequestering carbon in rangeland. With input from the California Rangeland Coalition, we suggested a number of promising practices for this research to explore, including managed grazing, the restoration of native perennials, and rangeland protection policies.
The most intriguing project is a collaboration between CalRecycle and CDFA, who propose to explore the water conservation benefits of compost and mulch applications. This research would seek to quantify the water use efficiencies from compost and mulch usage. We recommend that this research be conducted in ‘real-world’ contexts at both organic and conventional farms, to ensure that the research outputs are relevant for growers.
Climate Change Research Plan: An Ambitious Roadmap
Alongside the Fourth Assessment research, the state has also been preparing its Climate Change Research Plan—an ambitious roadmap that presents priorities for the next five years of research investments by the state.
The Research Plan is straightforward in its message: in order to craft successful climate change policy in California, policymakers need access to comprehensive, strategic, and relevant research. This document, a product of inter-agency meetings of the Climate Action Team, seeks to identify research priorities that will best help the state address the climate challenge.
At this point, the Plan is purely aspirational; it does not have any funding attached to it, though the Climate Action Team has stated that the plan is a guide for future research.
Many of the agricultural research areas identified in the Fourth Assessment are echoed and expanded upon in the Research Plan. The Plan’s section on agriculture identifies research needs on farmland conservation, nitrogen and manure management, water management, and conservation tillage, among others.
CalCAN has recommended that this research agenda be modified to better reflect the totality of practices used in California farming, particularly in organic and agro-ecological management systems.
For example, the Research Plan identifies conservation tillage as a practice to explore for its potential to increase soil carbon sequestration. We agree, but existing research already tells us that conservation tillage can be much more effective when combined with other promising practices, such as the elimination of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and the use of cover crops.
Examining individual practices in isolation from one another often produces a very limited set of results that is not always applicable in complex, dynamic cropping systems. Although we recognize the methodological difficulties of examining complex agricultural systems, we think this is vital in order to produce research that growers can actually use as they implement agricultural solutions to climate change.
Getting Research into the Fields
In order for any of this research to be useful, it needs to get out to those who need it most. With the significant decline in funding for agricultural extension and technical assistance providers in recent years, the knowledge pipeline from researchers to farmers is threatened.
It is therefore important for agricultural climate change research to have built-in outreach components. Examples include workshops, farm press outreach, and farm field days to spread knowledge and demonstrate findings.
Conducting on-farm demonstration projects, rather than experimental work in labs or at test sites, is another way for this research to establish real and meaningful connections to the grower community.
We have recommended that both the Fourth Assessment and Climate Research Plan documents acknowledge the importance of outreach efforts.
We will continue to weigh in as California’s ambitious climate research plans are finalized and put into action.