Fighting Farmland Loss & Climate Change
Much has been made of the potential for U.S. agriculture to help reduce climate-altering greenhouse gases by modifying farming practices. Dairy farms can turn methane (20 times as potent as a greenhouse gas as CO2) from livestock manure and rumination into an alternative fuel source. Crop farmers can adopt conservation tillage instead of conventional plowing that causes soil carbon to escape into the atmosphere. And nearly all farmers can reduce the use fertilizers that release nitrous oxide (310 times as potent as CO2) into the atmosphere when applied to the land. Our Agriculture & Environment campaign is focusing on all these issues and in California’s San Joaquin Valley we are working with a partner organization, Sustainable Conservation, on a project to demonstrate farming techniques to address them.
Often overlooked, however, is the role that saving farmland can play in reducing the risks of climate change. Quite simply, one of the most important strategies for greenhouse gas reduction – more compact, walkable, transit-oriented urban development – is also the key to reducing the loss of farmland, especially in California. For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, which is responsible for over half of the state’s annual agricultural production, urban development is consuming an acre of farmland for every 8 new residents. (To get an idea of how spread out that is, think of two four-person touch football teams playing on the Rose Bowl gridiron.) If this sprawling pattern continues, the region will pave over more than 500 square miles of farmland by 2050, losing the equivalent of a billion dollars worth of annual food production capacity.
It turns out that there is a direct correlation between the efficiency of development in San Joaquin Valley counties (population divided by developed acreage) and the annual number of vehicle miles traveled by their residents. The more spread out an urban area is, the more people have to drive and the more greenhouse gas emissions come from their cars, SUVs and trucks. (See chart)
To make the connection between climate change and farmland, we became one of the earliest members of a consortium of nonprofit organizations called Climate Plan. Along with partners, we have been involved in the fight to pass climate legislation in California and, more recently, to see that the law actually results in better land use decisions by local government and developers. Recently, the state’s Regional Targets Advisory Committee (RTAC) recommended a process for translating the greenhouse gas reduction goal established by AB 32, California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act – achieving 1990 levels by 2020 – into local targets for curbing urban sprawl, as required by SB 375, companion legislation making the climate-land use connection. Unless local governments change development patterns and encourage more walkable, transit-oriented communities, it is predicted that vehicle miles traveled in California could increase 70% by 2030, canceling out all the benefits of improved auto fuel economy and low-carbon fuels.
For several years, we have been working with local governments in the San Joaquin Valley on a regional “blueprint” for more efficient growth and development. (See related story on our Web page.) We have made some progress, but not enough. And the hope is that the land use-related greenhouse gas reduction targets established under SB 375 will prompt local government to re-examine their future plans and be more aggressive in promoting the kind of smart growth that is key to mitigating climate change and saving irreplaceable farmland.
P.O. Box 73856
Davis, CA 95617