Acting now to protect our land and our farmers

Acting now to protect our land and our farmers

This has been a back-breaking year for American agriculture. President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE just unleashed a new round of tariffs on Chinese products, and our nation’s farmers will once again pay the price. This pricing volatility comes at a time when near-constant spring rains delay crop plantings, compounding the pain for farming families. A new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report provides no relief, finding that climate change is an increasing threat to our land. But the report also offers a major window of opportunity — we can tackle this challenge if we take immediate steps and give farmers the tools they need to lead. 

The report confirms what U.S. farmers are already seeing first-hand and offers a glimpse into a future of unchecked climate change. While extreme weather like floods or droughts are already making it harder for people around the world to grow crops, increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will also make the food we can grow less nutritious. Farmers already struggling to find water for irrigation will face even drier conditions, while many places with too much water will get even wetter. Pests and diseases, which can wreak havoc on crops and livestock, may expand to new regions.

The good news is that farmers and ranchers have a power that no other sector has: the ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the ground. This is critical for the resiliency of farms and for tackling climate change itself. Agriculture, forestry and other land use account for about 22 percent of human emissions, but the IPCC also points to better soil management as one of the most promising solutions.

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Farmers don’t need to take on a thankless burden — these steps can help build resilience for their own operations, their bottom line, and our food system as a whole. Healthier farmland soils help crops stand up better to floods, hold more moisture during times of heat and drought, and protect the water supplies on which rural communities depend. It’s a win-win for farmers and the planet.  

Some of these farming solutions to climate change are already being put into practice, but they’ll need good policy, research and financial resources to make the difference needed to safeguard our food system and our planet. Indigo Ag, a new start-up that has amassed $600 million in investment funds, recently launched the Terraton Initiative, to pay farmers worldwide to sequester 1 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide. Institutions like the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, where I serve on the board, are providing the agricultural community with the tools they need to better protect their livelihoods and the environment. Two recent grants are aimed at helping farmers keep nutrients in the soil and at dealing with challenging weeds while protecting soil health. 

It’s promising to see efforts like these taking place, but as the UN report highlights, we have far to go and little time for doing so. The window for action is closing: Capturing carbon in soil can work now but it will be less effective if we delay. Rising temperatures will undermine the capacity of agriculture fields to store carbon due to decrease in crop yields while making adaptation efforts increasingly futile. 

Failing to take climate action promises to create a food crisis, from food scarcity to job loss. Climate is cruel in that it’s changing in the land space are even more far-reaching that one might imagine. Rising temperatures, for example, may impact the nutritional value of crops. 

Our food system and climate are at a tipping point — the decisions farmers make now, and over the next dozen planting seasons, can make all the difference. It’s not yet too late to plant the seeds of climate action, so we grow toward solutions and away from the worst impacts of climate change.  

Dan Glickman is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program. He served as the secretary of agriculture under President Clinton from 1995 to 2001, and prior to that, served for 18 years in the House of Representatives representing the 4th Congressional District of Kansas.