Cultivating Climate Resilience

Agriculture could hold the key to California’s climate goals.

Climate change is creating widespread disruptions in our food and farming systems. In the last decade alone, farmers and ranchers have faced unprecedented challenges, including increasing water scarcity, extreme heat, more frequent and intense flooding and wildfire events, and unpredictable weather and pest infestations. Experienced and new farmers alike are struggling to stay in business, and farmworkers are facing growing risks to their health and safety, including the reality of working on more dangerously hot days.

a cultivated field, mountans and clouds behind

A new CalCAN report suggests scaling climate-smart agriculture investments in California to $1 billion annually, less than 0.5 percent of California’s average annual state budget for a sector that generates approximately 2.5 percent of the state’s GDP. Photo by Russ Allison Loar.

The stakes are high when it comes to addressing these challenges, especially in California, which is the fifth-largest supplier of food and other agricultural products in the world. In fact, almost three-quarters of fruits and nuts in the United States and more than a third of the country’s vegetables are grown in the Golden State. On top of that, agriculture is also a significant economic driver and employer in the state. Re-envisioning how California’s farmers and ranchers grow food should be an urgent priority.

California has made a bold commitment to addressing the climate crisis and has set several climate goals that directly affect the agriculture industry. Notably, Assembly Bill 1757 requires the state to determine an ambitious range of targets for natural carbon sequestration on natural and working lands to help the state achieve carbon neutrality and foster climate adaptation and resilience. It sets specific sequestration goals for 2030, 2038, and 2045. These goals help measure the state’s progress toward a more climate-resilient economy and also help justify state funding and programs needed to achieve those goals.

Over the past decade, climate-resilient agricultural practices have gained momentum — drawing attention from researchers, large corporations, and consumers. In California at least, they’ve also caught the attention of policy makers: Since 2015, the state has allocated close to $1 billion to fund Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) programs that support practices that increase soil carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve water use efficiency, and more.

In addition to the CSA programs, a growing workforce of agricultural professionals is supporting farmers implementing sustainable practices. Farmers and ranchers also seem increasingly interested and willing to adopt new practices. Since the beginning of the CSA programs in 2014, farmer demand has consistently surpassed available funds.

Despite increased resources and interest from stakeholders, there is still huge untapped potential for climate change mitigation initiatives on California’s farms and ranches. In an effort to review and improve California’s current agricultural system, this fall the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) — which advocates for incentives, polices, and technical assistance to catalyze a transition to climate-resilience and equitable agriculture — released A Climate Platform for Agriculture. The first part of the report, “State of the State,” assesses progress made in research, policy, and practice. The second part, “Tools for Transformation,” puts forth recommendations that are both practical and cutting-edge.

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The diverse set of ideas presented in the report are intended to engage and inspire policymakers, agriculture stakeholders, and advocates in the food and farming, environmental, and climate justice fields to advance policies that yield faster and deeper change. Suggestions include adoption of a whole-farm systems approach that supports ecological, economic, and social health; multidisciplinary collaboration; a commitment to addressing systemic inequities; ingenuity; and an entrepreneurial spirit. CalCAN also acknowledges the importance of financial investments in research, technical assistance, and market development, and that incentives for farmers and ranchers to lower the risk of transitioning to climate-resilient practices and technologies are essential. The report suggests scaling climate-smart agriculture investments to $1 billion annually as that number represents less than 0.5 percent of California’s average annual state budget for a sector that generates approximately 2.5 percent of the state’s GDP.

Agriculture has a key role to play in helping California reach its climate and biodiversity goals, including the state’s goal of reaching net carbon neutrality by 2045. What’s more, California’s food and farming system has the potential to lead the country as a working model for a productive agriculture sector that is also a net sink for greenhouse gases — rather than a net source. Time is of the essence. Swift action by stakeholders and policymakers is necessary to implement a multifaceted approach needed to make transformational change. Doing so will have exponential benefits.

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