Agriculture can be part of the solution to climate challenges

Alan Moeller and Bruce Johnson

The war in Ukraine, the on-going pandemic, rise in inflation and climate change have led to over 300 million people living on the brink of starvation said the Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Program David Beasley. As fertilizer becomes more difficult to manufacture and export, countries in Africa and Asia are unable to harvest typical quantities of food. “The world produces enough food to feed everybody on the planet, over 7.7 billion people,” Beasley said. “50% of that food is because of fertilizer, so if you don’t have fertilizer, you can’t have harvest at the yields that you need.” Climate change is a compounding factor, contributing to droughts and famine in numerous countries he said. “We’re looking at $11 billion shortfall of food production inside Africa alone. Now, I can go to Central America, South America, same issues on droughts. India devastated by heat and drought, and I can go on and on.” Beasley spoke to the Associated Press in the UN Rose Garden outside of the headquarters in New York during the 77th General Assembly.

The negative impacts of climate change and agrochemical contamination in our surface, ground and drinking water are serious challenges facing Nebraskans. They affect our livelihoods and our health. These complex problems require decisive actions. What if there were solutions associated with Nebraska’s strength in agriculture?

Agriculture accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to chemical contamination of water resources, but it is uniquely situated to be part of the solution. Agriculture can provide effective actions to mitigate climate change, reduce its impacts and improve water quality while increasing productivity. And the key lies in the soil under our feet.

Effective actions revolve around making sure soil is healthy and alive. When soil has depleted topsoil or little humus, few worms or fungi and other microorganisms, lacking texture and structure, it is no longer an organized living ecosystem. Over years of customary farming practices, most soils have lost organic matter, surface armor, ability to absorb heavy rains and shifted and depleted their biological diversity.

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Needed is an all-out effort to protect and regenerate our soils. A system of farming applying principles of soil health to the practice of farming and ranching is called regenerative agriculture. With over 90% of Nebraska’s total land area in agriculture, we have potential to help fight climate change and improve water quality. Many farmers and ranchers are adopting healthy soil management practices, but not all. No-till is the most widely adopted practice, however, a variety of additional practices need to be adopted to achieve full benefit. Which ones depends on the circumstances of each farm or ranch.

These practices can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, agrochemical usage and lessen the negative impacts of climate change. They reduce tillage requirements, thus decreasing CO2 releases from soil disturbance and fossil fuel usage and lessen soil compaction. Over time, healthy soils require fewer chemical inputs leading to less water pollution and nitrous oxide releases from fertilizers. They pull more C02 out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil as carbon, improve water infiltration, retain more moisture in the root zone, reduce runoff and erosion and improve water quality. They produce better yields and healthier crops, nourishing people and animals and improving the producers bottom line.

Two recently passed legislative acts, one state and one federal can increase the rate and scale of adoption of healthy soil management practices. They can remove some barriers that prevent some producers from adopting these practices.

At the state level, LB 925 passed during the 2022 legislative session created the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act. This law charged the Department of Natural Resources with the responsibility to create a producer coalition called the “Producer Learning Community” and develop a statewide network of demonstration and research farms. Producer led coalitions provide another approach to education and learning proving successful in surrounding states, however not yet formalized in Nebraska. Farmers trust farmers; therefore, producer-to-producer peer learning and mentorships complement University, NRCS, NRD and other efforts in Nebraska to increase awareness of the benefits of adopting healthy soil practices and how to achieve them.

At the federal level, the Inflation Reduction Act provides $19.5 billion for agricultural conservation programs. It adds over $18 billion in additional funding for existing farm bill conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program ($8.45 billion), Regional Conservation Partnership Program ($4.95 billion), Conservation Stewardship Program ($3.25 billion), and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program ($1.40 trillion). These programs provide financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers and landowners to voluntarily implement conservation practices on agricultural land including protecting and enhancing our soils health. This enhanced funding is essential since many interested farmers and ranchers have been turned away due to lack of funds.

These two acts are timely, as Nebraska is experiencing the negative impacts of climate change. Also, nitrate levels in Nebraska’s groundwater are on the rise, especially in parts of northeast Nebraska.

With Nebraska a leading agricultural state, our agricultural complex is part of the solution to climate and environmental challenges. This is a win-win-win opportunity—environmentally, economically, and socially—for all Nebraskans. It’s time for all to share the stewardship responsibility and costs to support and promote healthier soil practices and their multiple benefits.

We should support and appropriately pay farmers and ranchers for eco-system services rendered with our state and federal tax dollars. An economic opportunity is presented if we work together to accelerate the rate and scale of adoption of healthier soil management practices for a more sustainable and prosperous future for Nebraska.

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Alan Moeller and Bruce Johnson are founding members of the Nebraska Elder Climate Legacy and professors emeritus, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


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