Executive Director of California Climate and Agricultural Network (calCAN).
Renata Brillinger is the co-founder and executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) coalition, which is devoted to advancing public policies that advocate for and impact California agriculture in the face of climate change.
For over 17 years, Renata has worked on sustainable food systems projects in a variety of capacities. Prior to CalCAN, she was program director at the Climate Protection Campaign, focused on renewable energy and on agriculture. For eight years, she served as the director of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, a coalition of sustainable agriculture and environmental organizations that provided education on genetic engineering in agriculture.
The former Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems project manager for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Renata served on the founding steering committee of the California Food and Justice Coalition and is currently a steering committee member of the Center for Sustainability at CalPoly University in San Luis Obispo.
As this issue is devoted to the impact of soil upon our lives and agricultural efforts, we asked Renata to look at it through the prism of climate change and the policies with which CalCAN is active.
What aspect of climate change’s impact on agriculture is the most crucial to public awareness?
The drought is top of mind for California farmers. Thousands of acres of prime farmland have been fallowed in the past couple of years, wells are running dry, livestock are being sold off, and farmworkers are facing job insecurity and layoffs. A report from UC Davis last summer estimated that 17,000 agriculture jobs were lost last year due to the drought.
Other climate impacts include shifting pest and disease patterns that challenge farmers to keep up with new methods for controlling them. Unpredictable weather events make the already uncertain job of farming even more difficult. Unique to agriculture, warmer winters are causing a decline in what is known as “chill hours”—the number of hours each winter below specific temperatures that are required for some nut and fruit trees to flower and set fruit normally.
How is soil health in California impacted by climate change?
One issue is the increasing intensity of the drought/flood cycles which can erode topsoil and diminish soil life. Flipping the question around, it’s critical that we start considering how climate change can be impacted by soil health. There is growing awareness of the potential role of soil in sequestering carbon. It is clear that increasing the organic content of soil acts as a sink for atmospheric carbon, pulling down carbon dioxide from the air where it traps heat and causes climate change. Carbon in the soil is the fundamental building block of plants, so increasing soil carbon increases yields in crops. Soil carbon also changes the structure of the soil, making it more permeable and spongy (think: chocolate cake). More permeable soil absorbs and retains water better and acts as a reservoir, which is important when facing drought, and also helps mitigate flood events.
CalCAN has many farmer and rancher partners who devote a lot of effort to improving soil health; some even call themselves ‘dirt farmers.’ They use a variety of practices, such as adding compost and/or manure, planting cover crops, and reducing tillage in their fields so the carbon doesn’t get turned over and exposed to the air where it would be released. Some farmers, over the course of several years, have doubled and, in some cases, tripled the carbon content of their soils.
There are only three places to sequester carbon on earth. Most of it is stored in oceans, but they are virtually saturated, and it’s causing acidification and species extinction. Some is stored in trees and other woody plants—though we continue to clear-cut forests in parts of the world like Brazil and Indonesia. Storing carbon in soil, some say, may save us. At the very least, incentivizing and educating farmers about the role that soil health can play in climate change mitigation will bring many benefits, and may buy us time to transition to clean transportation and energy systems.
What steps do you hope that Governor Brown takes to prepare California for its future and adapt to its present?
There are barriers for California farmers in transitioning to farming practices that have climate benefits. Sometimes financial incentives help overcome the risk of trying new practices and seeing lower yields in the beginning, or can offset the cost of new equipment. Sometimes they need technical assistance and education. Sometimes they want to see others succeed before they’ll try it themselves.
To overcome these barriers, we want to win the support of Governor Brown, his administration, and the legislature to fund a program we call the California Climate and Agriculture Program. This would set up a competitive grants program to fund demonstration projects across the state to implement farming and ranching practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and/or store carbon and also improve our understanding of what practices and systems are most effective, economic, and feasible.
CalCAN and our partner, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, are co-sponsoring a bill called the Agriculture Climate Benefits Act (SB 367) that would allocate a portion of the state’s cap-and-trade fund for this purpose. The bill has a lot of support so far, including from both conventional agriculture and environmental organizations.
Please complete this sentence: If you had your druthers, in five years, CalCAN would . . .
. . . no longer be necessary. There would be adequate public support in the form of funding, research, and expertise to support farmers in implementing the most effective, economical, and feasible practices that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
California farms would be a sink for carbon rather than a source of greenhouse gas emissions. They would be producing clean energy, and farmland at risk of conversion to urban sprawl would instead be permanently protected and thereby emissions related to urban development would be minimized.
There would be a vibrant and evolving network of farmers, researchers, and technical advisors implementing truly transformative farming systems that not only address our climate crisis but improve air and water quality, improve the health of farmworkers and rural communities, enhance the resilience of farms, create wildlife habitat, produce healthy food, and ensure the long-term economic viability of new and experienced farmers.
To learn more about the proposed Agriculture Climate Benefits Act, go to calclimateag.org/sb-367