Addressing climate change on the local farm

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Experts at the recent Grow-NY Summit agree that addressing climate change issues starts at the farm. Benjamin Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Renee Vassilos, director of agriculture innovation at the Nature Conservancy, spoke on the topic.

“Climate is changing,” Houlton said. “We know why. It’s bad and getting worse. We can solve it. Our agrifood system is incredibly vulnerable to weather extremes.”

He added that climate change has an “incredible impact” on producers, citing research that says about 20% of yields are lost to climate change and that the figure can double by 2050. Greater resilience and negative carbon emissions can help mitigate this effect, along with “supply chain optimization with data- driven approaches to quickly adapt to changes in climate and disruptions,” Houlton said.

He also wants to see more digital and precision approaches in agriculture, such as using gene editing to create crops capable of withstanding weather extremes.

“Turn carbon into a commodity, just like any commodity,” he offered as another solution. “Growers get paid for the carbon they’re storing in the soil.”

Instead of viewing CO2 as a problem, he views it as an opportunity for farmers. “Bill Gates recently suggested that there will be the equivalent of seven to eight Google-, Amazon- or Tesla-sized businesses coming out of the climate challenge and I think agriculture can be at the forefront,” Houlton said.

Vassilos works with start-ups and sees lots of potential for soil health as part of the solution. “We’re looking to support the shift towards 50% of U.S. cropland under adaptive soil health systems by 2030, which is quite audacious,” she said. “I’m managing a pool of venture capital to invest in companies to scale one or more practices to support soil health.” These are companies that will help promote more farm acres with cover crops, no-till, low-till, rotations and input optimization.

Vassilos thinks that soil health is the most important piece of solving the climate crisis.

“Another critical piece is business models,” Vassilos said. “We need to think about the roadblocks to change that exist around that ecosystem.”

She wants the view of farming to shift from volume-based to outcomes-based. “If you’re building a business model based on outcomes, it’s naturally more responsive,” she said. “You won’t have to have these one-size-fits-all solutions. You can focus on a specific farm ecosystem and develop solutions for that ecosystem.”

Holton agreed that soil is important. “Soil is the foundation,” he said. “As they say, ‘That’s the ecstatic skin of the earth.’ Through the soil we generate so many goods and services for society. There is a lot of carbon draw down potential in the soil.

“Right now, economists tell us the social cost of carbon dioxide is about for a ton of CO2 emitted, there’s $100 of damage to society. If you imagine and internalize it, every ton of CO2 in the atmosphere could be valued at $100.”

He added that to avoid the most dangerous climate exchange, 600 billion tons of CO2 need to be extracted. “You’re talking about $60 trillion of potential money in the air,” Houlton said. “That’s where our mindset needs to change. We need to shift from the problem of carbon to the solutions of carbon. There’s incredible potential.”

He said models of climate impact have helped researchers better understand how to fight its effects. “We are now incredibly confident in the connections on global climate changes, greenhouse gases and the weather extremes we’re seeing,” Houlton said. “Researchers are quantifying those impacts. We’re looking at one-fifth of the yield has been reduced because of climate change.”

Vassilos said that in addition to battling climate change, farmers’ actions can also benefit other aspects of the environment.

“The ag production system can bring around water systems, biodiversity and human health,” she said. “More and more connections are being discovered between healthy soil systems and more nutrient-dense foods. We’re getting sharper around the negative impacts and around the positives. The positive impact could be extraordinary.”

Houlton wants to see a carbon tax enacted. “One of the policies that’s been kicked around quite a bit is a carbon tax, so the value of carbon is clear to a full, free market,” he said. “These things are at their best are when smart incentive policies allow for innovation to fill in the gap between policy and executing things about carbon. We’re not seeing enough coordination yet.”

Vassilos wants more farmers to look at better options for increasing soil fertility. “There’s a lot of potential,” she said. “One area is input optimization. There’s an incredible amount of research from Cornell about the optimum use of fertilization.”

Companies her organization is working with are looking at biologic fertilizer that adds nitrogen and precision application of fertilizer.

“We think there are some very promising technology solutions out there to mitigate overuse and optimization for farm returns,” she added.

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