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Greenhouse gases in air

Conservation Practices and Saving Farmland Among the Ways
Agriculture Can Help Reduce Greenhouse Gases

California, the world’s twelfth largest source of greenhouse gases, is about to become the nation’s leader in reducing their impact on global climate.  This creates opportunities for the state’s agricultural producers to contribute both to emissions reduction and to capturing atmospheric carbon in the soil.  Doing so will help save California agriculture itself from the higher production costs and serious crop losses global warming could cause.

Legislation signed by Governor Schwarzenegger last fall, the Global Warming Solutions Act known as AB 32, will establish enforceable caps on greenhouse gas emissions with the goal of reducing them to 1990 levels by the year 2020 – a 25 percent reduction. (The state Senate and Assembly are now working on supplementary legislation.)

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Governor Schwarzenegger signs global warming
pact with other Western governors

The state Air Resources Board is charged with devising a program for reducing emissions from vehicles and industry, and promoting renewable and efficient energy production.  A cap-and-trade system, in which polluting industries could pay others who can more efficiently reduce airborne carbon, is one of the approaches being discussed.  It could benefit agriculture by creating a market for conservation practices such as no-till farming and rotational grazing, and the preservation of farmland under conservation easements.

Agriculture’s Stake in Climate Change

California agriculture has a lot at stake in global warming.  Recent studies conclude that its effects could range from greater heat stress on crops and more abundant weeds and pests, to higher demand for irrigation water coupled with reduced water supplies due to a smaller Sierra snowpack -- just for starters.  A rise in sea level could also render key agricultural areas like the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Salinas Valley – the Nation’s Salad Bowl and source of 90 percent of the world’s artichokes – unfarmable due to flooding or the intrusion of salts into groundwater.  And earlier spring weather could even upset the natural cycles that cause insect pollinators and fruit tree blossoms to appear at the same time, making widespread crop failure more likely.

Agriculture as Part of the Solution

At the same time, agriculture can contribute to its own salvation – and to that of all Californians, indeed, everyone on the planet -- in a number of ways that the implementation of AB 32 could encourage.  First, society’s use of fossil fuel energy (which contributes to atmospheric carbon) can be reduced by substituting renewable, biological sources of energy such methane recovered from livestock manure and ethanol from agricultural waste products like orchard clippings.  Second, agriculture can reduce its own use of energy and carbon emissions by switching to more efficient tractors, irrigation pumps and food processing methods.  Third, changes in farming practices such as no-till agriculture, rotational livestock grazing and planting vegetative buffer strips along streams, can capture and store more carbon in the soil.  The state Board on Food & Agriculture, a blue ribbon advisor to the governor, held a session on climate change last year in which these strategies were discussed.

What Role for Smart Growth and Farmland Preservation?

Another promising strategy for reducing greenhouse gases is the preservation of land in agriculture rather than developing it.  This can secure the long-term carbon sequestration benefits of greener pastures and croplands.  And, if strategically planned, the preservation of land can also influence the direction and configuration of urban development, resulting in more tightly-knit, livable communities where people don’t have to rely exclusively on autos to travel between their homes, jobs, school and shopping.  That, in turn, will reduce vehicle miles traveled per household (VMT/H), a key indicator of carbon dioxide and other air pollution emissions. Moreover, preservation of farmland close to cities will keep open the option of growing food more locally, thus reducing “food miles traveled.”

The Governor’s Climate Action Plan recognizes the role that more efficient development patterns can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Indeed, it relies on “smart land use and intelligent transportation” for one of the largest reductions in emissions of any of its many strategies.  But details about what the Administration and state legislature are prepared to do to encourage smarter growth – that preserves farmland as well as reduces greenhouse gases – are still, um, up in the air.

If you would like to see California officials pay more attention to the role that farmland preservation and smart growth can play in reducing climate change, here’s what you can do:

  • Contact Senate President pro Tem Don Perata and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and ask them to include smart growth solutions in their proposed climate change legislation
  • Contact CDFA Secretary A.G. Kawamura and ask him to accelerate development of a statewide “plan for agriculture” that addresses the issue of land use as well as the environmental and economic challenges global warming poses for agriculture
  • Contact the California members of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee – Reps. Joe Baca (D-43rd District), Dennis Cardoza (D-18th District), Jim Costa (D-20th), Kevin McCarthy (R-22nd) – and ask them to assure that funding for the Farm & Ranch Land Protection Program and other conservation programs are increased by the pending 2007 Federal Farm Bill.

    "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead

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