This week, scientists from around the world are convening in Sacramento for the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting to discuss cutting-edge research for a sustainable future.
The meeting comes at a pivotal time for California, as the three-year drought drags on. According to the latest Drought Monitor report, more than 58 percent of the state is experiencing “exceptional drought,” the most severe classification, characterized by extreme water shortages and crop loss. This is a big problem for the nation’s top agricultural state, where the value of agricultural products exceeds $40 billion a year. To achieve this remarkable productivity, California agriculture uses well over half of the state’s managed water.
As the drought intensifies, farmers are opting to grow less because water is just too expensive. This is an immediate threat to the livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, farmworkers and others. What does the future hold for California agriculture, especially as climate scientists are predicting that droughts could become more frequent and more intense?
Scientists are rising to the challenge. Many are finding answers in an emerging field – agroecology.
With its roots in crop science, agroecology draws on other disciplines, including ecology and the social sciences, to broaden our understanding of agriculture as part of a larger environmental and societal context. Agroecology considers the needs of today and the future by revealing the connections among soils, plants, livestock, the environment, our economy and our society to cope with challenges such as the current drought. For example, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program works with California communities to develop in-depth assessments of a region’s food system, including the viability of its farms, their impact on the environment and nutrition and food access issues that affect residents. In this way, whole regions are better equipped to find solutions to their problems.
The Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility at UC Davis is another example of agroecology at work. The ranch tests a wide array of farming methods, examining their impact on yield, soil quality, irrigation requirements, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The facility is 21 years into a pioneering, century-long study of which agricultural practices best respond to pressing challenges. Among the many results so far, experiments have shown that planting cover crops can increase water infiltration into soil, offering one practical step that farmers can employ today to battle drought.
Another local example of agroecology at work is the Marin Carbon Project, which brings together scientists, farmers, ranchers and others to sustainably and profitably manage the region’s grazing lands. This research, led by UC Berkeley scientists, has found that adding compost to grazed grasslands can increase soil’s water retention and production of grasses and other feed sources, while reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.
So if agroecology shows such great promise, why does it receive a small fraction of available research funding?
Understandably, the bulk of private investment in agricultural research goes where the returns are: seeds, chemicals and services that fit within established business models – not the innovations in information and agroecological practices that can and should spread freely among farmers and ranchers. And while government research programs and public agricultural research institutions, like the University of California, have historically been responsible for conducting research in the public interest, taxpayer dollars are not keeping pace with the need.
It’s time for a change. More than 250 scientists and other experts recently signed a statement calling for an increase in public investment in agroecology. Farmers would benefit from this joint effort with scientists through greater resilience against droughts, floods and other climate extremes.
Droughts will always pose challenges, but we can make investments today that will help us all weather climate changes and protect our food supply tomorrow and for generations to come.