How farmers can help fight climate change

china rice farming photo
CC BY 2.0 Tom Thai

The other week, I spent some time interviewing several business leaders for the North Carolina Sustainability CEnter, asking them about their reactions to President Obama's climate speach.

Their responses were decidedly mixed, but one discussion stayed with me. When I asked Charles Sydnor, the owner of Braeburn Farm, about the urgency of climate policy for his industry—he had this to say:

"As a farmer, when we look at climate change there are two sides to the story – but we only really talk about one – namely the production of greenhouse gases. Yet agriculture should be part of the solution. I can take you to places right now where crops are grown year-after-year-after-year without tilling the land, and where there is increased carbon sequestration year-after-year. The ability of agriculture to play a role in climate mitigation is enormous. I look forward to a day when farmers get paid more for our ecological services than our products."

Sydnor has a powerful point. While agriculture as it's currently practiced is a huge emitter of greenhouse gases, focusing solely on farming as a problem undermines efforts to get the farming community on our side. Given that the industry relies heavily on a stable, predictable climate for its viability, farmers are already a natural ally for climate activists. But in case that motivation is not enough, we thought we'd look at a few other ways that farming can be part of the solution, not just the problem.

No-till farming

Soil has the potential to store huge amounts of carbon. As explored in Jeremy's post on ploughing's dark secret, however, every time soil is turned over, large amounts of that carbon are released into the atmosphere. Add to that the damage done to soil structure, water retention and soil biodiversity, and you start to understand why no-till farming is such an attractive proposition.

Planting crops directly into the soil, surrounded by crop residues from previous plantings, allows farmers to save time, fuel, and labor—and decreases the amount of fertilizer that's needed too. With the potential of adding carbon credits to no-till farmers' income stream too, Sydnor's dream of farmers being paid for their ecological services does not seem such a pipe dream after all.

Home gardeners can also try their own equivalent of no-till farming by incorporating no-dig gardening into their vegetable patch.

Producing renewable energy

solar double cropping photo

The food versus fuel debate has certainly put a damper on the notion that crops from America's farmland could fuel our transportation infrastructure or replace fossil fuels. Whether or not there's a significant role to be played by crops grown for fuel, however, farmers can still play an important role in generating clean energy. From solar double cropping through energy-generating greenhouses and farm-based biogas production to integrating wind farms with farm farms, the clean energy revolution has plenty of opportunities for the innovative farmer.

Spearheading conservation

As climate change continues to put pressure on the natural environment, farmers can play a huge role in helping species adapt to changing circumstances. From planting bee roads through setting aside land for conservation to planting forest buffers by streams to reduce nitrogen runoff, the opportunities are almost endless. Then, of course, there's the opportunity to protect and enhance the biodiversity under our feet by reducing fertilizer use, adding organic matter and avoiding harmful pesticides.

Innovating new ways of growing

intensive aquaponics photoEcoFilms Australia/Video screen capture

Farmers feed the world. With climate change representing a huge threat to food production, it's never been more urgent to develop new, more efficient, and more resilient ways of growing food. Commercial-scale aquaponics, perennial farming crops, polycultures, urban farms, small-scale agroecology, technological improvements to industrial agriculture, SRI rice farming—there's no shortage of farmers who are working to innovate and improve on our current agricultural paradigm. Which methods and technologies will win out will remain to be seen, but it seems a fair bet that farming will not look like it does now by the middle of this century.

How farmers can help fight climate change
When it comes to climate change, agriculture is often talked about as part of the problem. But it's part of the solution too.

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