Selected category: Climate

Why were California's wildfires so deadly? The answer lies in the forest

This post was updated on October 23, 2017.

The intense fires that have ravaged my neighboring communities over the last week have been on my mind constantly.

My heart goes out to those who have experienced great loss – loss of houses, loss of cherished items, loss of pets, and loss of life.

Many of us are left wondering, how could this happen? Could it have been prevented? How can we avoid another extreme event like this?

I don’t have all of the answers. No one does.

But we do know some things that can help us become more resilient in the face of increasingly intense and frequent fires.

What we know about the California fires

We know that in California, wildfires often occur in October after dry, hot summers. This year, we experienced record heat. When coupled with the high winds we’ve experience in recent months, small fires can quickly become monstrous and deadly.   Read More »

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How an innovative corn supply chain model can empower companies to help farmers

Grain elevator. Credit: Flickr user Wilson Hui

A new study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that trying to make supply chains more sustainable is not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to food – and corn in particular.

Companies are keenly aware that consumers care about where their ingredients come from and how they were grown, and that improving efficiencies along the supply chain can be good for business. But the raw ingredients at the end of those chains are typically produced by a vast network of farmers who bring their corn to regional grain elevators and then sell their crops to grain traders. This is just the start of a lengthy and complicated process that can be challenging for food companies to disentangle and understand, let alone influence to become more sustainable.

That’s why the new study, which focuses on a corn supply chain model developed by the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise (NiSE), can be an important tool for empowering food companies with information that can help them tackle the tough job of supply chain sustainability.  Read More »

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3 ways the Farm Bill can protect croplands from extreme weather

Photo Credit: Flickr user Benjamin Disinger (License)

Here’s a statement that everyone can agree on, regardless of politics: Farmers benefit from making their croplands more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.

Report after report, including a study this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, has shown that shifting climatic conditions will hit agriculture hard, threatening food supplies and farmers’ incomes. This week’s report found that in years when the Arctic was warmer than normal, the average decline in yields across the United States was as high as 4 percent – and in Texas, corn yields were as low as 20 percent of what they are in typical years.

Farmers can take steps to protect their operations from extreme weather – but they can’t do it alone.

The 2018 Farm Bill can and should play a powerful role in helping farmers adapt to changing climatic conditions by prioritizing and supporting public-private partnerships, innovation, and financial models that can accelerate deployment of conservation practices.

Read More »

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What does the end of the Paris deal mean for agricultural innovation?

Agriculture has faced increasing disruption from extreme weather and climate shifts over the past 40 years.

In the face of an ever-changing climate, agricultural innovation is more important than ever.

No matter your views on climate change, the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement could compromise the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to become more resilient in the face of extreme weather events.

In the absence of federal leadership, individual farmers, state and national ag associations, food companies, retailers, and environmental organizations will need to fill the void.

I’m confident we can do this, because all the farmers I’ve ever known are incredible innovators and are willing to implement practices that can mitigate the effects of an unpredictable climate – practices that also protect their businesses. Read More »

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These farmers sparked agricultural carbon markets across the U.S.

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms. Credit: Adam Jahiel.

I want to tell you a story about a handful of growers whose commitment to sustainability and desire to innovate inspired an ag carbon credit movement.

Today, the first ever carbon credits generated from rice farmers were sold to Microsoft, all because of a handful of pioneers who tested out a radical idea – that by implementing conservation methods on their crops, farmers could reduce methane emissions and thereby generate a carbon credit that could be later be sold on the carbon market. Not to mention the fact that these farmers also reduced water use by as much as 30 percent. Read More »

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We need to get creative to protect wildlife in the face of climate risk

The Swainson's hawk will need to be protected from the effects of climate change

A pilot project for Swainson’s hawk is creating high-quality nesting habitat on a 4,000-acre farm in San Joaquin County.

Landowners and environmentalists both grapple with the same question: In the midst of uncertainty, what is the most effective way to reconcile short-term and long-term needs for wildlife habitat?

For example, it can be risky to invest in permanent conservation on a property vulnerable to climate change, but failing to protect existing habitat in the face of uncertainty is an existential threat to species like the Swainson’s hawk.

Fortunately, new habitat accounting tools are emerging that bring more certainty to conservation planning, which helps landowners make effective management decisions for their property, helps biologists design effective restoration plans and ultimately helps wildlife thrive. Read More »

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Measuring methane emissions from cows is elusive, but we’re getting closer

Cows cause high methane gas emissions

Photo credit: aleks.k

Americans’ fondness for milk, yogurt, cheese and juicy burgers requires a huge livestock industry, with nearly 90 million head of cattle in the U.S. in any one year. All those cows mean significant methane emissions.

With estimates from the United Nations that methane accounts for 44 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production, and new determination – including legislation in California – to reduce methane emissions from farms, we need to figure out how to quantify and then reduce those emissions.

Yet measuring methane emissions has been an elusive science. Methane is a colorless, odorless gas that packs a powerful punch: Methane has 84 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide in the short term. Read More »

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How agriculture can help drive a low-carbon economy

Reducing methane emissions from cows is a step in the right directionThe White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently released an intriguing report on how the United States can transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 while continuing economic growth. The report gives a starring role in this job to agricultural lands.

Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” outlines a 3-pronged strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent while accelerating job-creating innovation. Calling each strategy “critical,” CEQ first lists the familiar call to transition to renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

The second key strategy, however, is less often discussed: the potential of cropland and grassland soils, as well as forests, to store and sequester hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The report – informed by decades of scientific research – describes the opportunities to explore in this area. Read More »

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Three areas ripe for public investment in U.S. agriculture

Farm in Sichuan Province, China

Sichuan Province, China

Agriculture doesn’t often attract big investments like those that flow to technology.

But that may have just changed.

The Chinese government recently announced plans to invest $450 billion over the next four years – yep, billions – to help modernize agriculture and scale up practices that increase food security while hopefully minimizing impacts to the environment.

This eye-popping investment should be seen as a wake up call to the United States. Read More »

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Hurricane Matthew teaches us four important lessons about resilience

Flooded farm field. Photo: Todd Boyd, Pinetown, North Carolina

Photo credit: Todd Boyd, Pinetown, North Carolina, via DTN Progressive Farmer

Floodwaters powered by Hurricane Matthew’s heavy rains are finally receding in eastern North Carolina. Now farmers, communities, and state officials are beginning to take stock of their losses and think about the future.

Here are four lessons we should learn from the devastating storm.

1. Plan for the new normal

In the past 17 years, North Carolina has been hit by two storms causing 500-year floods. Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Matthew this past month. Both hurricanes caused extensive damage and loss of life. But Floyd in particular was especially devastating to animal agriculture and the environment. Read More »

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