Policy Makers Should Incentivize Those Who Deliver Climate Solutions from the Land

August 15, 2019

A forum in Gainesville, FL, this week – co-sponsored by SfL and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) – brought to light the varied threats that a changing climate is posing to today’s farmers, ranchers and forestland owners. But the forum and the tour of local ag and timber operations earlier that day also underscored the solutions offered by those who work the land in the effort to stem the often-catastrophic weather systems.

Unprecedented rainfall over several years in some parts of the state, rainfall shortages of up to 12 inches in others, a loss of distinctive cold weather seasons and the arrival of new pests and weeds laced the accounts provided by Florida producers at the forum.

But the forum also brought out the numerous contributions that those same producers are making in the fight against climate change. In Florida, and across the nation, advances in technology, innovation and hard work are facilitating the sequestration of carbon in the soil.

Technology is facilitating the capture of methane emissions from livestock operations that are being used to produce renewable natural gas. Feedstocks like corn and soybeans are being grown to produce low carbon liquid transportation fuels, while still meeting food needs.

Furthermore, rural lands are being used to site wind and solar energy facilities that generate no carbon emissions. Livestock producers are using sustainable grazing practices that can improve food security by producing much needed animal protein, often on land unsuitable for other uses.

Much is made of the global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that stem from agriculture, forestry and other land uses, which amount to some 23 percent of the total from human activity (that figure is 9 percent in the United States). Other significant sources of GHGs include transportation, power production and industry.

However, as pointed out by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Special Report on Climate Change and Land released late last week, the world’s working lands are still a carbon sink taking in more emissions than they discharge. From 2007 to 2016, working lands removed a net 6.7 tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the United States. However, the report also makes clear that positive balance is fading and change in how those lands are managed is imperative.

The report cites ways that working lands can minimize the impacts of climate change while also reducing the emissions that cause it. As these practices can improve the financial stability of farming, ranching and forestry operations, as well as make the land use sustainable for the long-term, a win-win-win scenario presents itself.

The IPCC report also acknowledges the growing adoption of agricultural practices, like rotating high-residue crops (corn, hay and small grains), conservation tillage (low- and no-till) and cover crops, that all improve soil health, helping prevent erosion and carbon loss. More efficient use of water and better-managed fertilizer applications are also improvements being employed by more to retain carbon in the soil.

But also noted in the report – and by speakers at the Florida forum this week – growers will be unable to scale up practices needed to minimize emissions, strengthen soil and carry out new tilling and growing methods without financial incentives. They’re a must-have, given that a farm economy in a six-year decline has been further battered this year by calamitous weather damage and the major trade dispute the White House has engaged in with China. Analysts say that U.S. soybean growers may never again be able to rely on what has been their biggest export market, China. The Asian giant is making major investments to facilitate trade with the world’s second-leading soybean producer, Brazil, and may not come back to U.S. markets at the levels recorded in recent years.

At the Gainesville forum, Rep. Kathy Castor, who chairs the House Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, indicated the possibility of a financial incentive being developed for agriculture and forestry operators who build carbon stores in their soils and woodlands. She said the significance of the threat posed by a changing climate will require a “paradigm shift” in how the government takes on the growing challenge.

We encourage other lawmakers to follow the lead of Rep. Castor and others in Congress who recognize the need for bold action to meet the mounting crisis. At a time of multiple threats and challenges to the world’s agricultural and forestry systems, farmers, ranchers and foresters are coming to the forefront and providing sustainable solutions that benefit all of who call this planet home. Those who work the land deserve the financial ability to ensure it happens.

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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.