California Forum

California agriculture will show the world how to lead on climate change

Cows are milked at a dairy farm at the University of California, Davis, where researchers are studying whether adding small amounts of seaweed to cattle feed can help reduce their emissions of methane.
Cows are milked at a dairy farm at the University of California, Davis, where researchers are studying whether adding small amounts of seaweed to cattle feed can help reduce their emissions of methane. AP

As tomato harvest hits full capacity and the almond harvest begins to ramp up, global leaders will gather in San Francisco this month to promote continued action on climate change.

While Silicon Valley seeks the spotlight, it is the more humble Central Valley that solidifies California’s leadership as one of the world’s most climate-smart economies.

Our Mediterranean climate allows us to produce and export $20 billion of the world’s most nutritious and high-quality foods. Partnerships between the state government, farmers and ranchers are ensuring that this bounty has the lowest greenhouse gas and environmental footprint in the world.

The Global Climate Action Summit Sept. 12-14 will build on last year’s monumental decision by governments to formally incorporate agriculture into the United Nations agreement on climate change. Negotiators recognized the double-edged relationship between climate and food production: Agriculture is both a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as one of the sectors most impacted by changing climates.

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We’ve seen that duality play out in our state, where farmers and ranchers experience the harsh impacts of extreme weather. Record wildfires have devastated key agricultural regions. The historic five-year drought cost estimated losses of $2.7 billion in revenue and 21,000 jobs at its peak.

With agriculture accounting for as many as 1 in 8 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley,the future of families and communities depends on adapting to climate change. That will require investing in precision irrigation systems, promoting practices that enrich soil health and even shifting crops — all while remaining competitive in a global industry.

Agriculture must also step up as part of the climate solution. The sector produces 8 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions and 60 percent of its methane emissions. As the largest water user,agriculture must also more sustainably manage less reliable supplies.

Josette Lewis Photo.jpg
Josette Lewis

California farms have already taken significant steps, but still have a ways to go. That includes holding agriculture accountable through regulations, including ones to reduce methane emissions from dairies and to reverse groundwater depletion.

Equally critical, however,are public investments in incentives that help farmers meet these higher standards. These incentives offset the substantial costs of switching to more efficient irrigation, replacing diesel farm equipment or installing digesters at dairies to reduce methane emissions.

This pairing of incentives with regulation has already begun and will continue to improve how California agriculture mitigates climate change, sustains rural livelihoods and maintains food security.

It is a timely and powerful demonstration of a vibrant and equitable low-carbon economy that we can share with the world at the Global Climate Action Summit.

Josette Lewis is associate vice president for sustainable agriculture at Environmental Defense Fund. She can be contacted at jolewis@edf.org.

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