Obama Remarks Short-Change Ag and Forestry Roles in Combating Climate Change

Recent comments on agriculture’s role in climate change made by former President Obama at a conference in Milan this week were, at best, disappointing.

At a “Seeds and Chips” conference, which gathers policy makers, investors and technology interests to discuss improving global food security, Obama cited agriculture as the second largest generator of greenhouse gases (GHG) that trigger climate change. He goes on to suggest those emissions are impacting food production, stating, “Our changing climate is already making it more difficult to produce food. We’ve already seen shrinking yields and rising food prices.”

Unfortunately, the former president’s remarks were overly broad, short-sighted and, in some cases, wrong.

What Obama fails to mention are the vast roles agriculture and forestry play in mitigating climate change – a surprising omission given his administration’s release last November of the Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, which sets out a long-term vision for achieving emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050 while meeting growing demands on our energy system and our lands.

The strategy document makes clear that U.S. lands have been sequestering much more carbon than they emit (a net “carbon sink”) for the last three decades. In 2014, the U.S. land carbon sink sequestered a net 762 million metric tons of CO2, offsetting 11 percent of economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions.

The strategy also recognizes the critical role to be played by bioenergy in meeting an expected growing energy demand in the decades to come. The sustainable management of our forests and other biomass resources can help supplement non-renewable fossil fuels in the transportation, building and industry sectors, while also supporting domestic industries and improving our national energy security.

While the former president’s remarks may be unfortunate, they underscore the need for agriculture and forestry to be at the table of all ongoing discussions about dealing with a changing climate. Policy makers around the world need to understand that important and substantial work has long been underway to address the challenge of agricultural productivity amidst a growing global population and changing climate.

Initiatives like the North American Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance (NACSAA), which was established in 2014 through Solutions from the Land, 25x’25’s parent organization, are not only addressing the need for farmers, ranchers and forestland owners to adapt to the extreme weather that comes with climate change, but they are also promoting the development of practices that mitigate its causes.

Taking a full, landscape approach, NACSAA is helping develop ways to sustainably increase agricultural productivity; enhance adaptive capacity and improve production resilience; and deliver ecosystem services, sequester carbon, and reduce and/or avoid GHG emissions.

Farmers around the world are finding ways to ensure that agriculture makes smarter use of less resources and provide more food with less carbon emissions, through activities like crop rotation, cover crops, using drought-resistant seeds, better input management, reduced water usage, and no- and low-till crop production, among others. Simultaneously, forest management is advancing to the point that global forestlands are becoming even greater carbon sinks.

We urge political leaders to embrace the efforts of those in agriculture and forestry who are producing clean energy and working to maximize the use of agricultural and forestry landscapes to sink carbon. Not only do these practices mitigate climate change, they improve soil health and, in turn, enhance productivity and profitability for farmers and forestland owners.

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