Climate Watch: How agriculture and climate change are connected, and why it matters

BY SYLVIA NEELY

This OpEd appeared in the Centre Daily Times on JULY 11, 2021

Agriculture faces serious problems in a warming world. California, according to one recent article, “supplies two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and more than a third of America’s vegetables.” The Central Valley’s bounty is made possible by water from the north flowing down rivers and irrigation streams. When rain and snow are not abundant, as has been the case recently, farmers rely on water from underground aquifers.

Unfortunately, that source is also drying up under persistent heat and drought. Some farmers this year decided they can make more money by reducing their crops and selling their water rights, according to a June 29 New York Times article. The western heat wave proved especially hazardous for farm workers.

Lower yields impact our economy. Agricultural exports exceeded $135 billion in 2019. Pennsylvania, with the largest hardwood forest in the United States, leads the nation in exporting hardwood lumber.

Forests matter, not only because they support our local economy, but because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are “carbon sinks.” Increasing attention is now being paid to the possibility of using farms as carbon sinks through practices such as no-till farming and biochar.

The U.S. Senate recently passed the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act by a 92-8 margin. This measure to provide access to carbon markets so that farmers can be rewarded for climate-smart farming methods has now also been introduced into the House with 15 Republican and 19 Democratic cosponsors.

Neither of our representatives — Glenn Thompson of the 15th District or Fred Keller of the 12th — is among the sponsors. But there is reason to hope for their support. They have both become members of the Conservative Climate Caucus in the House of Representatives that will bring together Republican lawmakers to learn about and consider climate actions.

As ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, Thompson wrote (along with Karly Matthews) an op-ed in the Washington Examiner in April promoting the role of agriculture in addressing climate change: “To mitigate climate change and bolster rural economies, we must engage and empower the original stewards of our land and give them the tools to expand upon the work they are already carrying out day to day. This means greater access to affordable technologies and proven land management practices to harness the carbon-reducing potential of our farms and ranches while increasing their bottom lines and economic competitiveness.”

Enhanced agricultural techniques and better forest management are welcome. But we cannot stop climate change by increasing carbon sinks alone. We must reduce emissions by doing many different things at the same time and quickly. The measures Republicans are taking in the agricultural sector nonetheless give hope because they indicate a recognition of the issue and a growing spirit of cooperation in addressing this difficult problem.

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