The Role of Agriculture in Global Warming
contributes an estimated 20% of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are
responsible for global warming.
Plowing the soil causes the release of significant amounts of carbon
previously fixed in soil structure by speeding the microbial activity
that causes decomposition of the organic matter in the soil.
Conventional farming activities also release substantial amounts of
methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced by the decomposition of
organic matter like crop residues and also by the digestive processes of
grazing livestock like cattle. The excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer
contributes to the emission of nitrous oxide. Agriculture is
responsible for about 50% of human-related methane emissions and 70% of nitrous
Because the average
molecule of food travels 1500 miles before someone eats it, the
transport of agricultural goods also releases CO2.
can significantly reduce their community’s contribution of GHGs by
supporting local sustainable agriculture. Locally produced fruits,
vegetables, dairy products and other agricultural goods require far less
transportation than products shipped into the community over long
distances. They can also be grown in ways that substantially reduce
emissions of GHGs.
Low-till or no-till
farming, a practice called conservation tillage, does not disrupt the
soil as much as heavily mechanized tilling practices, allowing the soil
to retain a much higher percentage of the carbon that is naturally fixed
within it. This also reduces CO2 emissions released from farm equipment
used to till the fields. In addition to reducing the amount of carbon
released, conservation tillage reduces the soil’s exposure to wind and
water erosion, increases options for multiple cropping, improves the
soil’s ability to retain moisture, and moderates the soil’s temperature.
Farmers can even be paid, through a program conducted by Chicago Climate
Exchange for converting their land to no or low-till practices.
An estimated 38% of
the country's total farmland (109 million acres) uses conservation
tillage practices, according to the group Conservation for Agriculture's
Future (Core 4).
It is an especially attractive practice for smaller, local operations.
Organic farming reduces or
eliminates the use of industrially produced agro-chemicals that require
significant amounts of oil and natural gas to produce, deliver and use.
Organic farming methods improve soil productivity, reduce the
potentially hazardous handling of chemicals and reduce water pollution.
Sustainable farming also sequesters carbon in the soil by using organic
wastes as fertilizer.
Organic farming is
more energy efficient than conventional farming. A study begun in 1978
and released in 2006 by the Swiss government found organic farms to be
20-56% more energy efficient than conventional farms.
Increased energy efficiency came in part from decreased fertilizer and
pesticide use and decreased transportation of external animal feed
A U.K. government study found that, “Organic systems had a lower energy
input largely because of an absence of indirect energy inputs in the
form of nitrogren fertilizer.” The study estimated that large organic
arable production used 35% less and organic dairy
74% less energy per unit of production when compared to conventional
Local operations are
especially well suited to organic production. This can also confer
significant competitive advantage to local farmers. Organic farming was
a $14.6 billion dollar industry in the U.S. in 2005 and continues to
grow around 17% annually.
By enabling local farmers to remain viable by entering this market, as
well as to grow food for local consumption, a community is investing in
the future of its farmers and ranchers, boosting local economic
development and reducing the carbon footprint of its agricultural
sector, and of its citizens as they feed their families.
A recent study by
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS)
concluded that Minnesota grain farmers could make more money by
switching to organic grain crops. With the 130 acre Swan Lake Farm as arepresentative farm,
ARS researchers used four years of trial data to predict that over 20
years organic soybeans would fetch up to $14 more per bushel, organic
corn up to $3 more per bushel, and wheat up to $5 more. Another
projection showed farmers netting an average of $50-60 more per acre
even if organic prices were to drop by half.
According to a study
by the leaders of the Consortium for Agricultural Soils Mitigation of
Greenhouse Gases (CASMGS), such agriculture practices that reverse the
decarbonization of the soil, and increase carbon sequestration by
farmers in the U.S. could reduce the expected increase in CO2 emissions
by 20% per year.
governments are implementing programs to encourage local food
production, increased use of organic produce and preservation of
farmland. Some of these programs are designed to strengthen local
economies, some to increase health and some to preserve a way of life.
But all have the effect of reducing
global warming as well. Increasingly, local governments are linking the
benefits of local production with the need for climate protection.
Washington, the county that encompasses Seattle, preserves local
farmland, in part to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture, to
enable residents to be more secure in their sources of food and to
enhance and preserve the commercial viability of agriculture as an
Ron Sims, the
visionary County Executive, described how the
county’s Greenprint for King County
would deliver many benefits beyond climate protection:
"The Greenprint gives us a powerful tool
to protect an additional 100,000 acres of open space and resource lands
by 2010, and strengthen a green infrastructure capable of ensuring that
King County’s incredible natural
assets are safeguarded for generations to come. King County currently owns more than
25,000 acres of lands and more than 106,000 acres of development rights
for the purpose of preserving working forests, productive farms, rivers
that are managed to support salmon habitat, yet also
reduce flood threats and a premier multi-modal, regional trail system."
The county has
partnered with national and local land protection organizations to
establish this network of protected lands surrounding the urban areas of
the county. It is also working with the four county region to encourage
similar land protection to ensure local food security and to reduce the
climate footprint of meeting its citizens’ needs.
The policies needed
to connect communities to local farmers are not complex or innovative.
Something as simple as mandating the purchase of local and organic foods
for government agencies, school districts and any other organization
that use municipal funds for procurement of food will have a rippling
effect on the local economy. Farmers will respond favorably to the
expansion of a new market by providing more goods and more variety.
Cherokee County, Iowa have created policies to support local producers
of organically grown agricultural products. Woodbury County instituted
a Local Food Purchase Policy to
“increase regional per capita income, provide incentives for job
creation, attract economic investment, and promote the health and safety
of its citizens and communities.”
It mandates that all county agencies that regularly procure food as part
of their operations purchase locally produced organic food. This
includes the Woodbury County Jail, Work Release Center and the Juvenile
Woodbury County also
provides grants of up to $50,000 each year in real property tax rebate
incentives for farms that convert from conventional farming techniques
to organic farming. The “Organics Conversion Policy” is designed to
offset costs associated with establishing the new techniques and losses
due to the three-year conversion period that is required in order to
attain organic certification.
Iowa, followed Woodbury County’s “Organics Conversion Policy” with a
county tax relief program of their own. It provides up to 100% relief
of property taxes for up to five years to growers who convert from
farming and become
certified organic growers.
Farmers in the program will also receive support from the Iowa
Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Leopold Center for
Sustainable Agriculture, the Iowa State University Extension office and
a network of regional organic growers. The Whole Foods stores in the
region provided additional help by promising to buy organic produce from
the region indefinitely.
The program also
hopes to make farming a more economically viable profession for young
Iowans who want to stay in the area as farmers. An Iowa study showed
that increasing consumption of locally grown produce would create an
influx of an additional $302 million in sales and more than 4,000 jobs
added to the Iowa economy.
Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) was established within the 2002
Federal Farm Bill. EQIP is a federal program offering financial and
technical assistance to implement structural and management practices on
eligible agricultural land. USDA Natural Resources and Conservation
offices in several states across the country, including Minnesota,
Nebraska, Iowa and Montana,
offer cost-share incentive programs that help farmers transition from
conventional agriculture to organic agriculture.
In Montana, the
state helps farmers convert by sharing the cost for organic crop
transition, paying $35 per acre for up to 100 acres for a maximum of
three years. To help ranchers make their livestock operations organic
the state pays $3.50 per acre for up to 1,000 acres for a maximum of
A growing number of
school districts across the country are teaming up with local farmers
and organic and local produce distributors to offer schoolchildren
healthier options in their food programs, while encouraging local
production. Schools in Washington State and California have introduced
organic food as part of healthy school lunch programs. Thanks to the
popularity and lower costs of an organic salad
bar at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Washington, all grade
schools in the city now have one.
In 2004, the Seattle school district adopted a Breakfast and Lunch
Program Procedure banning junk food and encouraging organic food in
school cafeterias. California public school districts in Berkeley,
Santa Monica and Palo Alto also have organic food programs.
across the country use Farm to School programs to connect local farmers
and their products with schools. Oklahoma’s Farm to School Programs
“provide schools with fresh and minimally processed farm commodities for
inclusion in school meals and snacks, to help children develop healthy
eating habits, and to improve Oklahoma farmers’ incomes and direct
access to markets,”
as described in the legislation creating the programs. The bill lists
the many benefits of Farm to School Programs, including “activities that
provide students with hands-on learning opportunities, such as farm
visits, cooking demonstrations and school gardening and composting
programs, and integrating nutrition and agriculture education into
Schoolchildren can use the programs to learn about healthy living and
the importance of sustainable agricultural practices. The Farm to
School Programs provide guidance and resources
to Oklahoma Schools so that they may partner with local farmers to
provide healthy, locally grown food and the educational opportunity for
People who eat
locally grown food support local farmers and the local economy,
while reducing GHG emissions from transporting food from long
distances. Community initiatives that assist local farmers to make
their practices more sustainable (i.e., converting to organics,
attaining organic certification or implementing conservation tillage)
can help the farming community significantly reduce its contribution to
global warming. A community that expands its supply of sustainable and
locally grown food will help protect the climate while promoting
healthier lifestyles, a stronger local economy, cleaner air and water
and greater community security.