Agriculture: Key Player in Combatting Climate Change

Our climate is changing. Few will feel the effects more directly than family farmers and ranchers.

Extreme weather will cause more frequent droughts and flooding, alter growing seasons, and shift the timing and impact of pest and weed pressures. At a time when the global population is increasing—to an estimated nearly 10 billion by 2050—climate change threatens farmers’ ability to grow food in a productive and environmentally sustainable way.

Yet at the same time, these stewards of the land can be part of the solution. The land under their management holds great promise to combat climate change and create resilience to it.

Conserving farmland “by the acre” and soil “by the inch,” as AFT has long advocated, is a powerful strategy for reducing greenhouse gases and improving productivity. With pioneering research, innovative tools, and aggressive advocacy, AFT is helping farmers, ranchers, and landowners play a unique role in reducing the growing threat of climate change while increasing food production, improving soil health, and protecting farmland for future generations.

AFT’s “Farmers Combat Climate Change” initiative has three strategies:

1) Protect Farmland and Promote Smart Growth to Significantly Reduce Emissions

Research documents that low-density development generates more emissions than compact development or farmland, and AFT studies in both New York and California show that protecting farmland and limiting sprawling development can help curb one of the largest sources of carbon emissions: transportation. In New York, if the annual loss of farmland were reduced by 80 percent, that could reduce emissions equal to removing one million cars from the road. Yet we continue to pave over our irreplaceable farmland at a rate of more than 175 acres every hour.

When farmland is developed, we also lose the potential to aggressively sequester carbon on that land. And with each acre of farmland we lose, we put more pressure on the remaining land to be managed more intensely for food production—which, in turn, makes it less likely it will be managed to optimize environmental benefits.

To help farmers, ranchers, and communities combat climate change, AFT will:

  • Research the impacts of farmland protection and smart growth on GHG emissions and expand our New York and California studies to new states
  • Project the impacts of climate change and development on our most productive, resilient, and versatile farmland through AFT’s Farms Under Threat initiative
  • Work with partners to ensure farmland protection and smart growth are key pillars of future growth and climate plans, including in U.S. Climate Alliance states.
2) Improve Soil Health to Help Reverse Climate Change and Improve Resiliency

Farmers and ranchers manage nearly one billion acres (or approximately 60 percent) of the land in America—land that can act as a natural carbon “sink” by absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in plants and soil. Unfortunately, the nation’s soil has degraded over time—losing more than half of its original organic matter content—resulting in erosion, soil nutrient losses, increased GHGs, and reduced productivity. We must reverse this trend.

Climate-smart agriculture, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, are agricultural practices that sustainably increase productivity, strengthen agricultural resilience to climate change and variability, and reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon storage. Many of the practices that achieve these goals align with soil health practices and the development of soil health management systems. A systems-level approach ensures that multiple aspects of soil and crop management are identified and considered and assumes that a complex system is more than the sum of its component parts. Thus, multiple benefits are often achieved: healthy soils absorb more water during heavy rains, which reduces runoff, and offer better resilience during periods of drought because the land holds more water. Healthy soils also can help farmers increase yields, increase yield stability, and be more productive in the long term.

Adopting climate-smart agricultural practices is among the least costly and most immediate actions that can help reduce GHG emissions on a meaningful scale. Their extensive adoption can serve as an important bridge until new climate-friendly energy and transportation technologies are developed. While there are a growing number of farmers and ranchers taking action to rebuild their soil and adopt soil health management systems, key barriers hinder more widespread adoption.

To overcome these barriers, AFT will:

  • Test new tools that measure soil health improvements and economic impacts
  • Research how non-operating landowners who rent their land can lengthen leases to incentivize more widespread implementation of climate-smart agriculture practices
  • Engage more women landowners in conservation-practice adoption
  • Offer advanced soil health training
  • Work with states to ensure agriculture is a key pillar in state climate plans
  • Advocate for additional federal funding and technical assistance for climate-smart agriculture
3) Generate Clean, Solar Energy on Farms While Protecting Our Best Farmland

America needs to dramatically expand renewable energy development to reduce use of fossil fuels and their GHG emissions. Much of this will occur on agricultural lands. These efforts create opportunities for farmers and landowners to reduce their energy expenses and earn new income but also pose threats to farmland and local food systems. New solar panels and wind turbines should not be sited on our best farmland. Tension over siting of solar generation is hindering its expansion, causing uncertainty and delays in approvals.

“Smart solar siting” guides solar development onto land where it has the least impact on agriculture and the environment. Implementing smart solar siting policies and programs can help streamline the process and accelerate renewable generation while protecting our best farmland and forests.

To promote smart solar siting, AFT will:

  • Identify marginal lands more suitable for solar and effective policies to guide siting away from our best agricultural lands
  • Engage stakeholders from agriculture, conservation, and clean energy to advance smart solar siting policies
  • Create an information clearinghouse with recommendations on best policies and programs for local and state policymakers

These actions are essential to the future of agriculture and our planet. Yet none are happening at the rate or scale needed given the enormity of the climate crisis. Despite the existence of tools that improve farm operations and farming practices, and despite impressive successes on individual farms, the agricultural sector overall has made only small gains. Even more troubling, our nation has had only minimal success preventing irreplaceable agricultural land from being developed. AFT has a proven track record of working with conservation partners, policymakers, and farmers and ranchers to advance a wide range of environmental goals—from improving air and water quality, to reducing soil erosion, building soil health, sequestering carbon, combating sprawl and keeping working lands working.