How Agriculture Can Help Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Industrial agriculture is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn't have to be this way and the answer is in the soil. California's Health Soils Initiative shows how it can be done.

The effects of climate change are upon us and they are kicking our collective rear ends. People across Europe and North America are experiencing a heatwave. The French city of Bordeaux experienced its highest temperature (106 Fahrenheit) since records began. Six people in the U.S. died due to excessive heat.

It is clear we need to take the issue of climate change seriously. Every sector and industry needs to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including agriculture, which is responsible for nine percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Almost $330 billion a year of agricultural commodities is produced in the U.S. Climate change makes this productivity vulnerable by impacting crop yields and livestock development.

For agriculture to play its part in reducing GHG emissions, the government must set better policies and have the right programs in place. “Any set of climate policies, including a Green New Deal, must simultaneously curb the power of corporations and Wall Street to control farming on their terms, and redirect the federal government to economically empower independent family farms over global agribusiness,” as an article by Our Future puts it.

The answer for farmers lies in the soil

One way that the federal government can help farmers is to pay them to capture the carbon in their soil, which a Roosevelt Institute report calls “a vital ecological service.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 89 percent of agriculture’s sequestration potential is in carbon capture via soil management. A study on the worldwide potential of carbon storage found that North America has the highest potential for soil carbon sequestration.

California has a program called the California Healthy Soils Initiative. The revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program is used to provide grants to farmers to develop and engage in sustainable practices that pull carbon from the air. One of the programs within the initiative is the Healthy Soils Program. Through the program, state agencies and departments collaborate to promote developing healthy soils on California’s farms and ranches. There are two components to the program, the HSP Incentives Program. which provides financial assistance to implement programs that sequester carbon and improve soil health, and the HSP Demonstration Projects, which showcases farmers and ranchers implementing HSP practices.

There are 194 projects awarded $8,667,596 in grants through the HSP Incentives Program. Twenty-four of those grants were awarded to Fresno County farmers and ranchers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, the latest one on record, lists Fresno County as the top agricultural county in the country for 2017. A look at several projects in Fresno County given grants shows the potential for this type of program:

  • Gerald Chooljian Farms was awarded $$73,697.06 for its project which adds compost and gypsum to its sandy soils during the winter to boost the soil profile. The project also includes planting a cover crop in the fall to give the soil organic matter and maintain the health of the grapevines. The project will reduce 464.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (MTCO2 eq/yr).
  • KB Farms was awarded $$40,951.20 to plant 6,000 feet of windbreak trees around its 40-acre farm surrounded by almond production. The trees protect its vegetable production from dust and pests during the almond harvest season. The project also consists of adding four tons to the acre of compost to improve soil fertility. A total of 416.5 MTCO2 eq/yr will be reduced through this project.

If a program similar to the HSP Incentives Program was implemented across the country, it could have a big impact on GHG reduction. The program would need to be scaled to the national level and would need to be fully financed by the federal government. It may seem like a proverbial long shot with the current president in office, but there is a political saying that as California goes, so goes the nation. Trump will not always be in office and one day there will be a president in office who will follow the golden state’s lead.

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