California Climate Policy Leaves Agriculture in the Dust | Civil Eats

California Climate Policy Leaves Agriculture in the Dust

Climate change presents California agriculture with two major challenges: how to reduce its contribution to climate change while arming itself against the threats a warming planet poses to agricultural production.

Fortunately, many of the measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in the soil will also make agriculture more resilient to extreme weather patterns, such as the current drought. Cover cropping, composting, conservation tillage, organic fertilization and other best management practices will increase the amount of soil organic matter, reduce erosion, conserve water and enhance fertility. This, in turn, will help increase crop productivity and drought and pest resistance in the face of an increasingly dry and hot climate. According to a January 2009, ground-breaking study by University of California at Davis researchers, these practices, when combined, will generate significant greenhouse gas reduction benefits, primarily through carbon sequestration.

Unfortunately, none of these measures were adopted or promoted in California’s climate change strategy. In fact, agriculture was almost entirely left out in the California Air Resources Board’s (ARB) implementation strategy for AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act. Of the 174 million metric tons of CO2 emissions reductions targeted in California’s legally binding “Scoping Plan,” not one ton is expected to come from agriculture. Of the additional possible 37.4 million tons in voluntary reductions identified in the strategy, just one million tons are expected from agriculture.

Making matters worse, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently closed its environment division and currently has no full time staff, resources or web-based information specifically dedicated to the issue of agriculture and climate change. The Agriculture Climate Action Team (AGCAT), an inter-agency group established to give input to the Air Resources Board and ensure follow up on agriculture and climate change measures, has been disbanded; and most of its recommended follow-on actions were ignored.

For a state with a $33 billion-a-year agriculture industry and a history of leadership on climate change, this is completely unacceptable.

The Economic and Technical Advancement Advisory Council (ETAAC), which advises the Air Resources Board on climate change matters, estimates that by 2020, agriculture could achieve an estimated reduction of 17 million metric tons per year, or about 10 percent of California’s goal.

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As things currently stand, however, virtually none of this will be achieved, leaving California farmers even more vulnerable to the higher temperatures, increasing drought, frost, floods and shrinking water resources that are already putting significant stresses on the agricultural sector. By 2050, estimates show average temperatures rising by as much as 3.6° F in certain regions and the Sierra Nevada snowpack declining by as much as 40 percent. These changes will result in declining crop yields, increased pests and invasive weeds, soil erosion and diminished productivity. If for no other reason than to protect agriculture from the devastating impacts of warming temperatures, California needs its best minds and most powerful institutions working actively to devise programs, incentives, and in a worst case scenario, regulations, that will dramatically expand the implementation of management practices that both reduce the impact of global warming on agriculture and reduce its contribution to global warming.

In our latest report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) outlines a set of recommendations that include research, communication, technical assistance and incentive programs to promote cost-effective best management practices that will reduce emissions as well as help farmers cut energy use, improve water conservation and water quality and build healthier, more productive soils. These are all critical elements in a comprehensive strategy for minimizing and adapting to the serious threats that climate change poses to California agriculture.

As a first step, the Air Resources Board, together with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the California Energy Commission and the Natural Resources Agency, should establish an inter-agency working group on agriculture and climate change. Federal agencies, NGOs and farm groups all have critical roles to play and should be actively involved. The group would provide a much needed forum for the intensive stakeholder engagement and outreach needed to motivate real change in California’s skeptical agriculture sector.

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In the conclusion of the report, EWG recommends 10 specific actions that should be carried out under the auspices of a new inter-agency working group and/or under the leadership of California’s chief state agencies concerned with agriculture and climate change.

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Kari Hamerschlag is a Senior Program Manger for Friends of the Earth's Food and Technology Program. Previously she worked for five years as a Senior Analyst for Environmental Working Group, and as a sustainable food policy consultant in the Bay Area, including a year long stint running a Farm Bill campaign for the California Coalition for Food and Farming. Read more >

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