From Doomsday to Denial, Is there a Middle Distance for Climate Change?

Lori Sallet

This week my copy of “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells arrived. Thank goodness, because I had just finished “After Nature” by Jedediah Purdy. Wallce-Wells provides us with the stark reality of the science in alarming detail. Purdy, even scarier, the question of whether humanity can collectively act to commit to self-restraint. (Note: Read them both.)

But then, as if I wasn’t already terrified, the Washington Post headline: White House to set up panel to counter climate change consensus, officials say.

It all left me sort of bewildered, but thinking, is there a middle distance for climate change?  I am an optimist. So, yes, I believe so. And, it just so happens I spend everyday immersed in the positive reality of one of the most promising resources for the future of our planet. Farmland. So, let me fill in that middle distance just a bit. 

Agriculture can and will play a key role in the future health of our planet and -- by the way – do so, as it continues to do what it has always done best – provide us sustenance.

AFT’s team of experts has defined how --

First, agriculture must start by reducing current emissions from farm and ranch operations --

Under current management practices, the agricultural sector produces approximately 9 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  This can be substantially reduced.  Advances in crop genetics, irrigation technologies, precision agriculture, and on-farm renewable energy generation, coupled with a focus on climate-smart agricultural practices that aim to enhance soil health, hold great potential to reduce emissions from agriculture.

Second, society must take advantage of our agricultural soils’ ability to sequestering carbon ---

Globally, soils store two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.  Upland soils also serve as a sink for atmospheric methane.  Where past land use practices have resulted in the loss of 50 percent of soil carbon, climate-smart agricultural practices can not only stop the loss, but reverse it, putting atmospheric carbon back into our soil.   Climate-smart farming practices include no-till, cover cropping, nutrient management, composting, and improved grazing management—as well as advanced practices that involve manure digesters, biochar, and other tools.  And their power is significant.  For example, adopting an individual practice such as growing cover crops on the bare soils after harvest of the five primary crops (i.e., corn, soybean, cotton, rice, and wheat) could sequester 103 Tg CO2e year-1.   And additional agronomic practices can be stacked to sequester multiple times this value.   These are the largest lower cost opportunities available among natural solutions to climate mitigation.

Lastly, federal policy makers, state and local governments, and citizens must act to prevent higher future emissions by retaining farmland --

AFT’s most recent research shows the U.S.  is losing 1.5 million acres of farmland and ranchland a year—or 3 acres every minute.  In a 20-year period, our nation lost the equivalent of all the farmland in Iowa.  Beyond this, the land we are losing fastest is our best farmland, that which is most productive, most versatile, and most resilient to droughts, extreme heat, and storms.

Losing farmland to development is far more environmentally destructive than one may think.  First, that land converts to a use—such as a sprawling subdivision that requires more car travel than concentrated urban development—which will produce far more GHG emissions than the former farm. AFT studies in California and New York have shown that efforts to protect farmland while simultaneously encouraging smart growth reduces future GHG emissions by as much as 66 times over other land uses.  Second, we lose land that could have been managed in the future to actively sequester carbon.  Third, with each acre of farmland we lose, we put more pressure on the remaining land to be managed more intensely for food production—which, in turn, makes it less likely that the remaining farmland will be managed to optimize environmental benefits.

Bottom line: Our farms and ranches are poised to reduce GHG levels and sequester carbon—a compelling argument to retain as much farmland and ranchland as we can.  Beyond this, agriculture provides many environmental and socioeconomic co-benefits, including food production, wildlife and pollinator habitat, water recharge and purification, and rural viability.  

Here are the specific actions AFT plans to take to help achieve all of the above --

  1. Support policymakers with solid data and information about agriculture and climate change.
  2. Advance a new generation of conservation practices tailored to sequester carbon, reduce GHGs, and simultaneously improve resilience of food systems. 
  3. Advance the next wave of farmland and ranchland protection.
  4. Promote smart solar siting. Steering solar arrays away from prime farmland and encouraging dual use applications – farming and solar on the same land.
  5. Explore market-based solutions —a functional carbon credit system for agriculture.
  6. Help farmers and ranchers become effective climate champions.
  7. Conduct essential new research to unlock the full potential of US agriculture. How much farmland do we need to both grow our food, fiber, and fuel and restore our planet by managing that farmland using the best climate-smart practices on each acre?

Join us in this effort by making these messages a part of your climate mantra.