June 14th, 2011


Director of Environmental Affairs, California Farm Bureau Federation

Former Director of Environmental Services, Western United Dairymen

Policy Director, California Climate Agriculture Network

Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture


California’s 81,000 farms and ranches account for 6 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Making the farms more energy efficient, and ensuring that farmers can adapt to a warmer planet, will be a decades-long challenge, agreed a panel of experts gathered by Climate One, in San Francisco, on June 14.

That a serious conversation on the linkages between agriculture and climate change even exists in California is largely thanks to passage of the state’s landmark climate change law, AB32. Soon, not only will many more farmers be counting carbon, they’ll be able to monetize the carbon emissions they prevent. Cynthia Cory, Director of Environmental Affairs, California Farm Bureau Federation, said the way to sell this new reality to her members – most of them family farmers – is to focus on the bottom line. “What they think makes sense is energy efficiency,” she said. Forget mention of climate science, she added. Instead ask, “How can we make your production system more energy efficient?”

Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director, California Climate and Agriculture Network, elaborated on what AB32 could mean for farmers. The proposed carbon trading system, currently under development by the California Air Resources Board, would enable a farm, she said, “to reduce its own emissions, voluntarily, by being part of the carbon market.”

Still other opportunities await farmers. A cap-and-trade system would generate revenue, a portion of which, her organization argues, “should go for the key things that we need to assist California agriculture to remain viable when temperatures rise and water become more constrained.” That includes research, technical assistance for producers, and financial incentives for on-farm conservation practices that can cut emissions or sequester carbon and help farmers adapt to a very different climate in coming decades.

Paul Martin, Director of Environmental Services, Western United Dairymen, said farmers should be guided by a three-legged stool of sustainability: ethical production, scientific and environmental responsibility, and economic performance. His distilled message: “We need organic food because people want it. We need grass-fed because people want it. We need natural because people want it. And we need conventional because people want that kind of food.”

“There’s a place for every type of production,” he said. “What we need to encourage is for every one of those types of production to do a better job with the way they produce.”

California’s new Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary, Karen Ross, was encouraged that food had finally entered the policy debate, and expressed optimism that young people will carry it forward. “There’s a renewed interest in where our food comes from, how it’s produced, and who is producing it.”

She highlighted the role of cities in shaping a more sustainable food policy. “It’s the real intersection of agriculture, food, health, and nutrition,” she gushed. “Cities are saying, ‘We can do something about this.’ It’s about identifying open plots for community gardens. It’s about making sure access to nutritious, locally grown food is available. It’s about understanding what it takes to help those farmers on the urban edge, or right in our local communities.”

– Justin Gerdes
June 14, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California