Growing Returns

What is climate-smart agriculture?

quoteYou may have heard by now about “climate-smart agriculture.” It’s the catchphrase that came out of the United Nations Climate Summit this week and the reason I was in New York to participate in a panel discussion on how to achieve food security for a growing population in a climate-changing world.

More than 20 governments and 30 organizations announced they would join the newly launched Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, which aims to enable 500 million farmers worldwide to practice climate-smart agriculture. This is wonderful. But what does it mean in practice?

My colleagues and I have been asking ourselves this question since the concept was originally introduced by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in 2010. Over the past four years, we’ve done some hard thinking on which practices, precisely, will get us to a point where we can keep pace with the food demands of a growing global population and increase the resiliency of our food systems to the harsh impacts of climate change.

Read More »

Posted in Climate, Ecosystems, Sustainable Agriculture, Water| Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How the marketplace is driving clean water solutions

BoyMomDrinkFtn_Photos.com_87822780_4CC_RFFederal and state governments aren’t doing enough to keep polluted runoff from reaching America’s waterways. That’s the conclusion the Environmental Protection Agency – aka the federal government – has reached in a new report from the office of its inspector general.

Anyone surprised?

Government has tried to reign in nutrient pollution for decades, only to watch dead zones persist in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just last month, a toxic brew of urban and agricultural runoff shut down Toledo’s water for two days. Seven weeks later, many of the city’s half million residents are still afraid to drink what’s coming out of the tap.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Fertilizer, Sustainable Agriculture, Water| Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

“Growing” habitat can help agriculture and wildlife weather the drought

IMG_6613dsThe California drought is putting the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers at serious risk.  Without a reliable water supply, many fields are going fallow. This not only threatens the state’s world-leading agricultural economy, it significantly impacts wildlife species that depend on agricultural lands for survival.

A pioneering program under development in California’s Central Valley, however, may offer farmers and wildlife some relief. It’s called the Central Valley Habitat Exchange, and while it wasn’t conceived for the express purpose of helping growers in times of drought, it can reward producers who provide habitat by growing less water-intensive crops. Here’s how.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat Exchange, Water| Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

Farmers and ranchers can help bring birds back from the brink

A raptor adapted to the open grasslands, the Swainson's hawk has become increasingly dependent on agriculture, especially alfalfa crops, as native communities are converted to agricultural lands.

A raptor adapted to the open grasslands, the Swainson's hawk has become increasingly dependent on agriculture in California, especially alfalfa crops, as native communities are converted to agricultural lands.

The 2014 State of the Birds report, released this week, sends a message that is both somber and hopeful: we can bring vulnerable bird species back from the brink of extinction, but there is a lot of work to be done.

While some once-abundant species have rebounded in response to habitat restoration and management, others continue to decline. If we want to put our nation’s birds on a path to recovery, farmers and ranchers have a critical role to play.

Success stories show the way

Iconic bird species like bald eagles, brown pelicans and peregrine falcons that were once teetering on the edge of extinction are thriving again. California condors, with their spectacular 10-foot wingspans, went extinct in the wild in 1987. Today, 225 individuals soar once again over several western states.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Habitat, Habitat Exchange, Partnerships| Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

Five reasons to care about climate change and agriculture

Rebecca Shaw is an expert panelist at the 2014 Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans, talking about "Feeding Eight Billion People in a Warming World."

Rebecca Shaw is an expert panelist at the 2014 Society of Environmental Journalists conference in New Orleans, talking about "Feeding Eight Billion People in a Warming World."

You may have seen the recent news about the potential impacts of drought on craft breweries like Lagunitas. Or the articulate Mother Jones headline – Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters. Talking about climate change in terms of beer and almond milk isn’t a bad strategy for capturing the attention of thirsty Americans, but it’s not just our favorite beverages that are at risk.

Climate change poses a number of potential threats to the global food system, namely because of the impacts to agriculture. Here are five reasons why everyone from beer drinkers in California to bean farmers in Latin America should care about climate change and agriculture.

1. Rising temperatures could burn a hole in your wallet. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that, with average temperature increases of 3 to 4ºC, we will see large negative impacts on farm yields and severe risks to food security. Not only are food markets sensitive to climate extremes, but food prices are expected to rise anywhere from 3 to 84 percent by 2050.

Read More »

Posted in Climate, Ecosystems, Habitat, Sustainable Agriculture| Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

California’s salad bowl tosses up new ideas in sustainability

EDF’s Robert Parkhurst participated in the 2014 California Educational Fellowship, organized by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation and its alumni.

EDF’s Robert Parkhurst participated in the 2014 California Educational Fellowship, organized by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation and its alumni.

I recently had the unique opportunity to learn firsthand how central California farmers are constantly changing the way specialty crops are grown, squeezing more from fewer resources and reducing their impacts on the environment.

I joined a handful of other ag policy experts in a visit to the Salinas Valley, considered “the salad bowl of the world,” where we learned about the current issues and complex challenges facing the state’s farmers and ranchers. The trip was organized by the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation.

Running about 90 miles from Monterey to San Luis Obispo, the Salinas Valley alone grows more than 85 percent of the nation’s artichokes, 55 percent of the nation’s lettuce and 30 percent of the nation’s strawberries. It also leads the state of California in the production of broccoli, celery, mushrooms and cabbage.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Sustainable Agriculture, Water| Tagged , , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

Stories of young farmers, water and resilience

Mike De Smet. Photo credit: National Young Farmers Coalition

Mike De Smet. Photo credit: National Young Farmers Coalition

I recently blogged about the growing gap between water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin, and how the default solution too often involves permanently taking water out of agricultural irrigation and transferring it to meet the needs of a growing urban population.

Alternative solutions do exist – ones that don’t leave farmland unproductive and threaten the agricultural economy that sustains us all. To prove this point, I would like to turn to the stories of a few young farmers who, despite record drought in the arid Southwest, have begun to adapt through innovative drought mitigation and water-saving practices, proving that increased productivity and healthy ecosystems can coexist.

Read More »

Posted in Sustainable Agriculture, Water| Comments closed

Water filters can fight dead zones without hindering farm production

A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

A treatment wetland built under the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program. Photo from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship

"Is the water safe?"

In the United States, we take it for granted that the answer to that question is “yes.” But the residents of Toledo, OH, learned recently that their water wasn’t safe to drink for a few days because toxins associated with an algal bloom in Lake Erie had contaminated the city’s water supply. Meanwhile, a Maryland man was released from the hospital after nearly losing his leg and his life to flesh-eating bacteria contracted from swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.

These types of incidents are caused by nutrient pollution. Although nutrient pollution can come from many sources, runoff from agriculture is the dominant contributor to the problem in Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Agriculture-associated nutrient pollution also impacts local streams and lakes, causing fish kills and closing swimming beaches. A recent study in Minnesota suggested that more than 70 percent of nitrogen in state waters comes from cropland.

What needs to be done, and how much will make a difference? Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Fertilizer, Water| Tagged , , , , , , | Comments closed

We can have food security and a healthy environment

child eating cornThe way we produce food is getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. If current projections hold, we’ll have 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – 2 billion more than we have today.

Throughout history, when we’ve needed to expand food production, we’ve gone to nature’s vast storehouse and made withdrawals. In doing so, we’ve filled wetlands, dried up rivers, degraded habitat, and polluted our air and water.

We’ve already drawn down nature’s account to dangerously low levels, and we still need to produce more.

If we’re going to meet growing needs for food and water, we’re going to have to do it in ways that not only stop harming the environment, but actually improve the ecosystems that serve us. Business as usual just isn’t going to cut it.

Farmers lead the way

During the past decade, we’ve been in quiet conversations with farmers and ranchers about how to facilitate this transformation. As we’ve walked their land, we’ve seen some encouraging things. Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Sustainable Agriculture| Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Response, comments now closed

Lake Erie’s fertilizer problem isn’t over, but we’re working on it

tractor fertilizing

Fertilizer is the engine of agriculture, but its inefficient use means that excess fertilizer ends up in our waterways, contaminating freshwater supplies and causing algae blooms, such as those that recently cut off water supplies to hundreds of thousands of residents in Toledo, OH. In addition to impacts on communities, algae blooms also affect ecosystems, killing millions of fish and harming the seafood and recreation industries.

Nutrient runoff from fertilizer is a problem that many stakeholders, including farmers, have been trying to fix for many years, both in the Western Lake Erie Basin and beyond. The efforts to date have had a real impact, but that impact has not been nearly enough to solve the problem of dangerous and costly dead zones.

We need to do much more at a much larger scale, while also increasing productivity to feed a growing population.

Read More »

Posted in Ecosystems, Fertilizer, Sustainable Agriculture| Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments closed