NSAC's Blog

Why American Farmers Should Lead the Way on Climate Change Mitigation

June 19, 2017

Photo credit: Matt Russell

Note: This is a guest blog by Matt Russell, Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at Drake University Agricultural Law Center. Matt has worked on retail agriculture, land tenure, conservation, climate change, farmer veteran issues, development, state food policy, and federal farm policy. Matt is a fifth generation Iowa farmer. He and his husband Patrick Standley operate Coyote Run Farm and market produce, eggs, and beef. He serves on the Iowa Farm Service Agency State Committee. 

I first spoke out about farming and climate change in the summer of 2013 when I was asked to speak at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa.  That spring, I had taken some square bales on the 4-wheeler out to our cows in the blinding snow. It was the worst blizzard of the year. We lost power on our farm for 36 hours.  Experiencing such extreme weather in the middle of May was a surreal experience, and one that motivated me to take action.

And since that summer I’ve done just that. I’ve provided public comments in Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, done video interviews, presented on panels, written opinion editorials, authored blog postings, and co-authored a law journal article on climate change and American agriculture.  Often I do this in my capacity as Resilient Agriculture Coordinator at the Drake University Agricultural Law Center.  Always, I do this as a 5th generation Iowa farmer.

What does climate change mean for American farmers?

As I see it, the situation for American farmers continues to evolve. The Paris Agreement represented the first moment that world leaders collectively decided to act on climate change. Coming on the heels of this effort is a global realization that agriculture will play a major role in helping the citizens of the world solve this problem. To be fair, agriculture has come late to the discussion, but I predict in the next 10 years it will catch up and become a driver for action on climate change.

Climate change is a problem that affects farmers in differing degrees depending on who we are and where we farm – but make no mistake, it does indeed dramatically affect all of us. Therefore, how will American farmers engage in the efforts to implement the Paris Agreement, which is the first global platform for solving climate change? If American farmers take our lead from President Trump, the answer is: we won’t lead at all.

Climate Change: Threat and Opportunity

As a farmer, I see climate change as both a threat and an opportunity. The threat is straightforward: a changing climate makes my job on the farm much harder. However, compared to farmers around the world, I have the most tools to deal with the negative effects – mostly thanks to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American taxpayer. These tools include risk management (crop insurance and disaster programs), conservation programs, and loans. All of these can help me navigate variability in production and even outright crop failures. True, things are getting worse and the negative impacts of climate change will continue to accelerate, but thanks to these resources I can probably navigate the challenges through roughly the rest of my farming career.

The opportunity side of the equation is also in my favor, but it has a shorter window. As an American farmer, I have tools to use to innovate; arguably more tools than any other group of farmers on earth. This toolkit comes in the form of a partnership that includes farmers, businesses, land grant universities, USDA, state departments of agriculture, local governments, and a rich diversity of farming organizations such as the soybean associations and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Underpinning all of this is the support from American taxpayers; support that is given because they still believe in me, the American farmer. The opportunity for my generation of farmers is to leverage this partnership and all its resources to develop the agricultural solutions to climate change.

In terms of threats and opportunities, I think the more important of the two for American farmers and rural communities is the opportunity to lead the world and to reap the benefits of developing the new practices and products that will result from the efforts to sequester carbon on our farms. While I might be able to navigate the challenges of increasingly extreme weather in the next few decades, the opportunity for American farmers to lead and to bring the benefits of that leadership home to our rural communities is right now. If we fail to act now, the advantages we have in that great partnership I mentioned above will have been lost to farmers whose countries are investing heavily in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

       Photo Credit: USDA

Where do we go from here?

Here are seven questions farmers and those who serve farmers need to ask ourselves. Answering these questions is all the more urgent as President Trump tries to close our window of opportunity by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement.

  1. How did America become so divided regarding climate change? As early as 2000, farmers were positioning ourselves to lead, so what happened? Author and journalist Chris Clayton provides an excellent account of the shift in his book, The Elephant in the Cornfield. Understanding how farmers came to organize politically around denying climate change also provides insights into how farmers can instead organize to become climate change heroes.
  2. What do we need to know about the Paris Agreement and international efforts to battle climate change? Todd Edwards and I wrote an article for the Drake Journal of Agricultural Law on this question. The article argues that existing components in American agriculture can fit into the mechanisms defined by the agreement. American farmers can use existing capacity to develop the services​ that nations, sub-national governmental jurisdictions, NGOs, and businesses are working together to create to keep the earth from warming more than two degrees Celsius.
  3. How will farmers be affected as businesses develop systems to quantify and encourage sustainable outcomes? Our research at the Agricultural Law Center suggests the willingness of companies to demand sustainability from farmers is outpacing their willingness to pay farmers for these services. If we farmers don’t develop, define, and quantify the value of sustainable practices and products on our farms, it will become very difficult for us to hold onto that value for our farms and our rural communities.
  4. What policy mechanisms can farmers use to turn our farms into carbon sinks? The 2018 farm bill is an excellent opportunity to begin investing in American agriculture and our commitment to leveraging Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.  While this may seem like a long shot since little has been said about climate change in the farm bill debate, climate change represents an opportunity for every region of the country to promote research and production that ties American agriculture together rather than splintering it across regions and products.
  5. How can farmers use the opportunities to fight climate change to solve other problems on our farms? Being honest, we have some serious issues on our farms that cause problems not just for us, but also for our neighbors. Take water quality, for example. Whether it’s the Chesapeake Bay or the Des Moines Water Works, agricultural production can have a serious impact on water quality. When it comes to climate change, agriculture isn’t any more responsible than lots of other industries, however, unlike other industries, we have real options to help solve the problem of climate change. When we use our farms to battle climate change, many of those practices will have myriad benefits – like also helping to solve water quality problems. Imagine developing the solutions to climate change, getting paid for doing it, and addressing our water quality challenges all at the same time.
  6. Does battling climate change mean we need to abandon modern farming practices? Change and innovation can be frightening. The good news is that the revolution in agriculture to solve climate change can build on the past rather than dismantling it. Precision agriculture, big data, robotics, advanced genetics, and animal production will not be replaced as we innovate to capture carbon on our farms and reduce emissions. They are the platform on which the next generation of farms will grow. On-farm innovation has already played an important role in agricultural advancement to address climate change. Managed grazing, conservation tillage, and cover crops are but three examples of farmer led innovations that have made our farms more productive while at the same time more sustainable. Solving the problem of climate change is an opportunity for farmers to innovate and for farm organizations to lead.
  7. How can we move American agriculture into a leadership role when there appears to be so much polarization? The polarization itself may create the opportunity for smaller organizations to act, for unknown voices to be heard, and for more nimble efforts to move. A year ago, we convened 45 Iowa farm leaders on campus to talk about our state’s agriculture and climate change efforts. It was a frank and respectful conversation wherein people and organizations shared very different views and positions. What stood out to me in a powerful way was the universal desire to move beyond the polarization. What also emerged was some frustration there wasn’t a clear path to do so. Ironically, President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may actually create opportunities for farmers to forge new relationships and leverage new resources to make our farms more sustainable.  California, for example, is providing a powerful example of how farmers can position themselves to be part of the solution.

We American farmers should be prepared to leverage our skills in agriculture to help mitigate and adapt to climate change. If we don’t, others will. In the face of the Administration’s rejection of the international forces embracing action on climate change, states, cities, businesses, political leaders, and ordinary citizens are forging ahead with the best of what America has to offer the world. As farmers we need to join these leaders and show them the innovative and creative problem solving abilities of the American farmer.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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