California is once again at the forefront of national climate change policy. California’s Department of Natural Resources recently issued the nation’s first state-wide strategy of its kind that lays out a blue print for how California should adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change. Many of these impacts, including severe drought, increased wildfires and floods, and prolonged warmer temperatures are already being felt across the state. The plan puts forth key recommendations across seven different sectors, including agriculture.
Unfortunately, the action plan for agriculture leaves out one critical proven strategy for coping with extreme weather events: the promotion of organic agricultural practices that will make soils healthier and more productive, while also conserving water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The draft adaptation strategy points out what most critics of federal and state climate change legislation constantly fail to acknowledge: That taking no action to address climate change now could cost key sectors in the state “tens of billions of dollars per year in direct costs.”
When it comes to agriculture, we can not afford these costs. Besides lost production and reduced yields, there are many other potential impacts, including threats to food security and wildlife, increases in pests, diseases and invasive species, increased soil erosion, and reduced soil and water quality, to name a few. Unfortunately, the draft strategy fails to even include agriculture among its top twelve priority actions.
At a public hearing last week in Sacramento, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) offered its suggestions for strengthening and prioritizing organic and sustainable agricultural practices among the adaptation measures proposed for the agriculture sector. First and foremost, the adaptation strategy should give higher priority to the promotion of proven, cost-effective soil management strategies—such as cover cropping, conservation tillage, mulching, nutrient management and organic agriculture—which will make soils more productive, farms more resilient, and at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These practices will deliver numerous other benefits for farmers and the environment, including better water quality and enhanced soil, water and biodiversity conservation.
While the report makes some excellent recommendations for addressing water quality and conservation, it fails to mention the value of soil management practices for improving water capture, infiltration, and storage. For example, increasing soil organic matter by one percent can enhance water storage in the soil by 16,000 gallons per acre-foot. The document neglects another key strategy for conserving water: Discouraging thirsty crops like alfalfa and cotton that just don’t make sense for arid climates. Alfalfa growers use as much water as all the cities in California put together. The strategy should recommend the use of incentives to encourage farmers to plant water-efficient crops.
As the climate warms, pests and weeds are expected to multiply more rapidly. If we don’t want to see a huge increase in chemical applications, it’s critical that the strategy more strongly promote management techniques such as advanced integrated pest management, fertilizer efficiency and organic agriculture, to help farmers minimize the future use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Finally the state needs to dramatically elevate the attention that it gives to agriculture and climate change. The California Department of Food and Agriculture currently has no staff dedicated to climate change and agriculture was all but left out of the state’s implementation strategy for its landmark Climate Change bill, AB 32. It’s time that the state’s leading agricultural agency dedicate at least one full time staff to climate change.
Given the strong links between agriculture adaptation and greenhouse gas emission reduction practices, the state should establish an inter-agency working group on agriculture and climate change to ensure swifter and better coordinated action on both these fronts. It could also provide a much needed forum for the intensive stakeholder engagement and outreach that will be needed to motivate real change.
It’s not too late to make changes to the strategy. Comments are being accepted until September 17. But unless the Natural Resources Agency hears from organic and sustainable farmers and advocates, the state will likely pursue a business as usual approach to agriculture. Given the stakes, this doesn’t seem like a good option.