farm

America's Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

The following post was published in the Baltimore Sun on May 24, 2019

Maryland farmers are confronting the challenges of changing weather patterns that are the result of carbon pollution and warmer temperatures. Following heavy rain last September, more than in the previous five Septembers combined, red wine production in 2018 from our vineyard in Davidsonville was less than half the amount it had been the year before.

Others in agriculture fared even worse. Some Maryland vineyards produced no red wine at all. Vegetable production at one local farm was a quarter of the usual yield. Several neighbors who grow soybeans simply didn’t harvest them.

It doesn’t have to be this way. New agricultural practices can make our farms more resilient and help address climate change. The key is capturing atmospheric carbon and storing it in soil. These regenerative practices are already used in many parts of the country and are ready for large-scale deployment at relatively low cost. The challenge now is to encourage farmers to adopt these new methods.

Historically, changes in land use — such as conversion of woodland to cropland — and common agricultural practices like tillage (prepping the land for crops) have resulted in significant net loss of soil carbon. One quarter of all anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere, about 450 billion metric tons emitted over 8,000 years, can be attributed to these harmful land use practices.

Enhanced soil management can reverse this trend by reducing agricultural emissions and, in many cases, resulting in net draw down of greenhouse gases. Because soil stores three times more carbon than the atmosphere, increasing soil carbon content by even a small percentage represents a substantial mechanism to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and reverse global warming.

Soil carbon can be increased through plant assimilation of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reducing losses associated with decomposition of soil organic matter. Returning agricultural land to native ecosystems is probably the best way to increase levels of stored carbon over time, but this is not always an option. Improved cropping systems, conversion to perennial crops, agroforestry and novel grazing methods are also very effective.

The National Academy of Sciences has conservatively estimated that improved agricultural land management could result in removal of 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year in the United States, nearly 20 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions each year. Achieving this level of carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere will require active participation by America’s 750,000 farmers.

In addition to their benefits on the climate, practices that sequester carbon can also boost agricultural yields, increase soil nutrient retention and enhance soil water infiltration and holding capacity. In other words, investing in regenerative agriculture will not only reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it will also benefit farmers and rural communities and improve global resilience to climate change.

Even with these direct benefits to farmers, additional incentives and education will be required. First, many small farmers face a great deal of risk and are reluctant to change from time-tested methods. Second, soil enhancing methods must be adapted to specific places and crops, and this need for customization complicates implementation. Third, many farmers believe that they should be compensated for removing atmospheric carbon that came from non-agricultural settings, suggesting that financing these changes must also be considered.

There are several mechanisms already being used throughout the country to engage farmers in this process of change. Carbon offset markets, which directly compensate farmers for achieving quantifiable emission goals, represent the most ambitious approach. The California Air Resources Board protocol that allows rice farmers to sell offsets into the state’s cap and trade market is one example.

Other methods to finance farmer incentives include direct subsidies, such as those used by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to achieve conservation and water quality goals, and certifications or labeling based on sustainability-based performance standards established by agricultural distributors and retailers like the Field to Farm Alliance.

Now is the time for policy makers to engage farmers on climate change. First, the state should fund the Maryland Healthy Soil Initiative that was created to develop agricultural responses to climate change. Second, it should establish a carbon offset market that would allow electric companies to meet their renewable energy requirement by purchasing credits from farmers who adopt the necessary practices. Third, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s proposed carbon cap and dividend program should be modified to allow revenues to be used to purchase “carbon farming” services.

Maryland farmers lead the nation in adopting conservation measures that improve water quality. Engaging them to put carbon back in soil is an obvious and potentially powerful way to reverse climate change while enhancing global food security.

Climate Change, Part 1: A Christmas Wish

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Polly and I are spending the holidays with our granddaughter, Juana Magdalena, in a little town called City Bell, just east of Buenos Aires. Polly’s three daughters are all here too, almost as much fun as Juana. As the summer solstice passes, our days are filled with family, exercise, asados, newspapers, a bit of sightseeing, and, for me, Spanish lessons. There is a fruit and vegetable farm within walking distance, and freshly butchered meat and chickens on the way, with none of the planting, weeding, feeding, watering, and picking chores of farm life.  

The family time also allows us to reflect on this new grandparenting stage of life. We intensely appreciate the diverse beauty and richness of the world as we experience the munificence of family, friends, and colleagues. Building on the knowledge of a hundred thousand years of evolution and the gifts of our parents and grandparents, we can learn and debate, try to understand the universe and our place in it, and create beauty through art, literature, music, and winemaking. As at the farm, I awaken each morning profoundly grateful for these gifts.

And yet, I wonder, as all grandparents must, what kind of a world Juana will inherit.

The world has changed a great deal in my lifetime, mostly for the better. In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker has documented the extraordinary progress we humans have made to improve health, safety, family incomes, and life expectancy; expand democracy, education, and equal rights; and reduce poverty, hunger, and violence.

This progress extends to many environmental challenges, especially those that are visible to the naked eye. The Chesapeake Bay is (slowly) getting cleaner, acid rain has declined, and bald eagles have returned.  Deforestation of the Amazon has slowed, the amount of protected terrestrial and marine habitat has increased, tankers spill less oil, and the ozone hole is getting smaller. This progress, Pinker argues, is the result of activism, legislation, regulation, technological innovation, and global cooperation, and it leads Pinker to be optimistic about the future.

Yet there are enormous challenges ahead. For most of the past 420,000 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels remained below 300 parts per million (ppm). They started climbing during the industrial revolution, reached 315 ppm when I was born and now exceed 400 ppm. The average temperature in Anne Arundel County has climbed from 55.4 degrees F to 56.9 degrees in my lifetime. Multiple reports, including those from the Fourth National Climate Assessment and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describe the expected rise in temperature and sea level, destructive storms and fires, increases in mosquito and tick-borne diseases, and declining agricultural output. Our experience during the 2018 vintage is perhaps an ominous preview.

But these challenges, as significant (and devastating) as they might be, don’t reflect all the vitality and beauty of the ecosystem in which we live and the danger it faces from climate change. In Yellowstone Park, native plant species are being replaced by invasive cheatgrass, reducing forage for wildlife. On the Galapagos Islands, increasingly frequent El Niño conditions block the flow of nutrients that feed plankton, threatening penguins, marine iguanas, and even Darwin’s finches. The number of insects has declined, at least in some parts of world, by more than 75% because of habitat loss and intensive use of pesticides.

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The rapid loss of plant and animal species is frightening. For example, what would happen if there were no pollinators? It turns out that life without them can endure, but it may not flourish. After overuse of pesticides eliminated bee populations decades ago, growers in the Maoxian Valley of Himalayan China hand-pollinate hundreds of thousands of apple and pear trees. Because fewer pollen-donor trees are required and humans effectively pollinate 100% of the flowers (bees only pollinate about 30%), yield per acre increases. Because they don’t need to worry about killing beneficial insects, these growers can use more insecticides to produce the unblemished fruit that brings high prices.

If efficiency, defined by higher yields and prices per unit of input, is the goal, then hand-pollination is the way to go when human labor is cheap and plentiful. Moreover, the image of an entire village turning out every spring to pollinate the region’s crop, each person brushing the flowers on 10-12 trees each day, conveys a certain sense of nobility and identity. Despite these advantages, this world seems sterile, lacking complexity, balance, depth, interest, and resilience, and our experience growing wine suggests it does not result in the best fruit. Likewise, most apple producing areas of the Himalayan region have chosen to reestablish pollinator populations and have not followed the path taken in the Maoxian Valley.

As humans, we cultivate our own welfare, and hopefully produce the best wine, by enhancing the health, diversity, and abundance of life around us, and not by disrupting ecosystems, destroying large sections of habitat, or raising animals in confinement, methods that might have more immediate financial return but don’t reflect their true economic costs. My Christmas wish is that Juana will find the beauty and strength that comes from being part of an interconnected whole, sheltered and nourished by nature, and that she will use her compassion, ingenuity, and knowledge to enrich the ensemble of the soil, water, air, plants, animals, and people that surround us.