Agriculture’s Role is Growing in the Effort to Stem a Changing Climate

December 12, 2019

The global climate negotiating sessions in Madrid come to a close this week, and producer advocates remain gratified that delegates to the talks have demonstrated a growing acceptance of the agricultural sector’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

As SfL steering committee member Ray Gaesser pointed out during his remarks at an agriculture panel held at a conference side event Saturday, up until recent years, agriculture was usually cited as a problem contributing to climate change, rarely as a potential path forward to mitigate impacts. But the conversation among global negotiators is changing and is now focused on the solutions the sector can bring to meet the challenge.

A sea-change of sorts occurred in 2017 with a vote at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) among delegates at the global negotiating session in Bonn, designated as Conference of Parties (COP) 23. There, delegates moved forward with the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture (KJWA), a landmark policy decision that formally acknowledged the critically important role agricultural landscapes can play in sustaining productivity, enhancing climate resilience, and contributing to the local and global goals for sustainability.

The KJWA works through two conference subsidiary bodies (one for scientific and technological advice and the other to address implementation), which take into consideration the vulnerabilities of agriculture to climate change and approaches to addressing food security.

Subsequent workshops and expert meetings are being staged by the UNFCCC to address issues related to soil, livestock, and nutrient and water management, as well as the food security and socio-economic impacts of climate change across the agricultural sectors. The North America Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), a farmer-led platform launched by SfL in 2015 to promote adaptation and sustainable farm and forestry production, has submitted a series of recommendations to global negotiators over the past two years, the most recent addressing nutrient use and manure management.

That SfL/NACSAA representatives and other farm and forestry interests have become major contributors to these global efforts reflects a growing recognition within domestic and international policy circles of the need – as declared in the guiding principles espoused by NACSAA as critical to the success of the KJWA efforts – for farmers to be placed at the center of all discussions and decision-making.

Domestically, it has taken some time for many in the U.S. agriculture sector to fully recognize the depth of the climate challenge and, subsequently, step up to assert leadership in efforts to deal with it. However, that hesitancy to lead is fast fading, as evidenced by a Dec. 9 account in Politico. The politics- and policy-focused news outlet details an under-the-radar meeting in rural Maryland last June that drew together some of the leading voices in U.S. agriculture. Included among them were USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with leaders of politically powerful farm interest groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, commodity groups, major food companies, green groups and anti-hunger advocacy organizations.

SfL Co-Chair AG Kawamura, a former Secretary of the California Department of Food & Agriculture, was among those invited to the gathering – which most participants would have acknowledged to be highly unlikely only a year ago due to the political divide that the topic of climate change has driven through the U.S. ag sector.

Hosted by SfL partner and NACSAA member, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the June meeting gives evidence of the realization within the ag community, which this year experienced historic rains and flooding, widespread wildfires and other catastrophic weather episodes across the nation, that something more must be done, and that the sector has much to offer in combating the growing threats. According to the Politico account, among the proposals which drew a consensus at the meeting was the suggestion to pay growers to engage in practices that can retain carbon in the soil, such as planting cover crops, reducing tillage, leaving crop residues on the land, and managing grazing.

Adequate compensation for ecosystem services is among the many proposals that SfL and NACSAA have called for in their climate-related work, which the article acknowledges, citing our projects in North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio, Florida and Iowa. We encourage other leaders in the sector to take an active part in this movement by joining NACSAA, offering enabling policy suggestions to the House Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, or by promoting climate smart agriculture by developing knowledge-sharing and capacity-building programs. Active participation in the development of policy will assure the best results for the solutions that agriculture can offer and the compensation those in the sector can receive.

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