Growing Returns

Scientists urge action to increase soil carbon

Soil is one of the most precious and finite natural resources, and maintaining healthy soil is mandatory to provide enough food for the planet in the face of a changing climate.

There is strong scientific consensus on the urgent need to rebuild agricultural soil carbon. That’s the topline message of a comment published this week in the journal Nature Sustainability.

Scientists and farmers know that increasing soil carbon can improve soil fertility, stabilize yields, reduce the need for inputs like fertilizer, and boost resilience to droughts and floods. That’s why so many soil health initiatives focus on building soil carbon.

While the importance of building soil carbon is widely endorsed, there is scientific debate about exactly how much carbon can be sequestered in soils. That is important data to know, but it should not distract us from doing all we can to continue to build carbon in the soil.

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Four ways North Carolina can build resilience year round

Earlier this week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed a proclamation recognizing the imperative to think anew about how the state lives with climate change. The governor emphasized the importance of building resilience as North Carolina communities continue to recover from an onslaught of devastating hurricanes and other extreme weather events.

Flooding has been the biggest problem this year, from headline-grabbing events like Hurricane Dorian, to intense, fast-forming thunderstorms like those we experienced in June, when 3 inches of rain fell per hour. In fact, June was the eighth wettest month on record since 1895.

September, however, was among the driest months in a decade, contributing to what experts call a “flash drought.” For farmers, flash droughts are problematic because they can cause crop loss, especially when crops have shallow roots after being planted during a wet month. While farmers were able to harvest some crops this fall, other harvests are at risk from the dry weather.

This pattern of extreme rain combined with flash drought is straining already beleaguered farmers and residents. Read More »

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“60 Minutes” interview with Land O’Lakes CEO underscores urgency of climate resilience

Sunday’s edition of “60 Minutes” featuring an interview with Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford put an urgent spotlight on the struggles that farmers are feeling from weather, tariffs and low prices.

From massive rainfall in the Midwest to flash droughts across the South, extreme weather is becoming a top concern among farmers, many of whom are acknowledging that climate change is impacting their operations, and they’re committing to resilience strategies. EDF’s farmer partners are telling us firsthand how climate change is altering their livelihoods, and they are thirsty for climate-smart tools and practices.

Ford rightly hones in on the role that technology plays in helping farmers hedge against the unpredictable in today’s tough environment and economy. Precision ag tools and technologies optimize inputs to achieve a more robust crop yield, in addition to healthier soils, improved water quality and other environmental benefits.

Technology is essential to advancing sustainability, but not without the corresponding informational, financial and policy drivers that will ultimately help us reach the goal of a resilient agricultural system. Read More »

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Three lessons from Cuba about improving coastal climate resilience

Facing a future with increasingly powerful hurricanes and rising seas, Cuba is addressing its vulnerability to climate change head-on.

The country recently approved a new constitution that highlights the importance of addressing climate change, and its National Plan to Confront Climate Change, known as Tarea Vida (“Project Life”), provides a template to coordinate the resilience efforts of multiple sectors across the island.

A recent seminar in Havana on climate finance and sustainable development highlighted a three-pronged strategy for effectively building resilience: the protection and rehabilitation of ecosystems to reduce climate impacts, robust data collection, and community involvement every step of the way. These best practices translate to the U.S. as well. Read More »

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Three ways to address increasing flood risk in the Midwest

Historic flooding across the Great Plains and Midwest has been devastating. While waters may be receding, farmers and communities aren’t out of the woods yet. Recovery will be costly and lengthy, and additional floods could be around the corner.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that more than 200 million Americans living in 25 states face elevated flood risk through May, and the risks go far beyond this year. The fourth National Climate Assessment predicts precipitation across the Midwest will increase in severity and frequency in the years ahead.

The region needs a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the dangers of excess water and increase the ability of working lands to withstand and recover from extreme precipitation. Contingency planning will be complex and constantly evolving, but it must do these three things to be successful. Read More »

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From barrios to the bio bay, what Puerto Rico’s recovery teaches us about resilience

Natural disasters are oftentimes felt most severely by human communities and ecosystems that are already vulnerable. This disparity is on clear display in Puerto Rico, where I am currently working.

On Sept. 20, 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma skirted the islands of Puerto Rico, the eye of Hurricane Maria struck, with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and gusts measured at 255 miles per hour by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, until the weather station was torn away. Twelve hours of wind, rain and high seas left no part of Puerto Rico unscathed.

In Vieques, the island where I’m based, and other remote areas of Puerto Rico, the power grid was offline for more than five months – the longest blackout in U.S. history.

While recovery efforts were slower and more painful than they should have been, the Puerto Rico experience still offers some key lessons in resilience. Read More »

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How the farm bill changes the future of climate and water conservation

The Senate and House passed the 2018 farm bill in overwhelmingly bipartisan votes of 87-13 and 369-47, respectively. The bill is now headed to the White House to be signed into law before the end of the year.

In many ways, this farm bill conference report maintains the tradition of incremental improvement that has always defined farm bills. Big-ticket programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program will continue to garner headlines.

But the bill also takes important steps to begin to shape the future of conservation in this country. Many smaller provisions in the fully funded conservation title open the door to new approaches that address water quality and climate change challenges that aren’t bound by a single farm’s borders.

Here’s what farmers and environmentalists need to know about new focus areas and approaches in the farm bill’s conservation title.

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Climate news got you down? Here are 3 bright spots that show promise in building resilience.

The federal government’s National Climate Assessment lays bare the grim future we face if we don’t reign in greenhouse gas emissions and scale up adaptation strategies in a hurry. Lost in most of the media coverage, however, is the fact that industry, government and communities are already coming together to build resilience so that people and wildlife can adapt to a changing climate.

Here are three shining examples. It may surprise you that some of these places are decidedly unblue.  Read More »

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Four near-term market and policy opportunities for increasing agricultural resilience

Every day farmers across the U.S. face unprecedented pressures from a variety of factors, including policy and regulations, markets and trade, and variability in input costs. With extreme weather becoming a new normal and the global population climbing toward 11 billion people by 2100, it is imperative that we build a food and agriculture system that can absorb and recover from these stresses.

This summer, Environmental Defense Fund, National Corn Growers Association and Farm Journal Foundation convened a stakeholder dialogue about the challenges facing the agriculture industry and recommended paths forward.

A new white paper [PDF] summarizes key findings from the discussion, which also included ideas for better equipping farmers with the tools and incentives they need to identify and adopt climate-smart solutions.

Here are four policy and market opportunities that can help boost agricultural resilience. Read More »

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How one company’s sustainability goal is poised to change an entire industry

Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has committed to a major increase in manure-to-energy projects. The company will invest in infrastructure and provide farmer incentives to install manure lagoon covers and digesters on 90 percent of its total hog finishing capacity, a standardized measurement that excludes sow and nursery farms, in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah over the next ten years.

This is a major step forward for the hog industry. Open lagoon and sprayfield systems of manure management are predominant in North Carolina and raise concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, odor and resilience to extreme rainfall.

There are currently only a few manure-to-energy projects in North Carolina. This commitment from Smithfield means they will become the new status quo.

The company’s largest source of greenhouse gases is methane emitted from open manure lagoons. Here’s how this commitment will turn that liability into an asset – and how we can ensure that it delivers the full potential benefits of the change. Read More »

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