Left to right: Todd Linskey, Dorn Cox and Erin Silva ( Photo courtesy Tom Karst )

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — By working together with the latest tools, researchers believe growers can help manage some of the effects of climate change and perhaps someday get paid for their efforts.

Speaking Jan. 10 at The Packer’s Global Organic Produce Expo, a panel of experts looked at advances in management tools that could help organic growers deal with the challenges of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Moderated by Todd Linsky, of Todd Linsky Consulting, the panel consisted of Dorn Cox, research director for Freeport, Maine-based Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & Environment, and organic specialist Erin Silva, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

With his work at Wolfe’s Neck Center, Cox said he focuses on the links between improving soil health and the beneficial role that agriculture can play in the environment, he said. 

“We really see agricultural science as a shared endeavor and agriculture as a shared human project,” he said. “And so we’re creating an environment where we’re linking producers and researchers and the general public together to help understand this larger world.”

The center aims to provide the best possible science from an open technology ecosystem to help farmers take site-specific action.

“We are at an amazing point in human history where we have some of the tools that you (once) could only dream of in science fiction novels, that are accessible and democratized for almost any farmer on earth, and yet we have yet to harness those together,” he said.

Cox said the Wolfe’s Neck Center is bringing in large food companies, top research universities and tech companies in a collaborative effort to help achieve that.

“As I like to say that agriculture is not rocket science,” he said. “It’s actually far, far more complex.”

Climate change and the greenhouse effect of increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are framed as “scary” issues to the public, but Cox said growers can play a role in managing carbon levels in the soil.

“There are more than four times as much carbon in biomass and the soil than there is an atmosphere, and 10 times more than in the oceans,” he said. “Small changes in how we manage the soil through agriculture can have very large effects.”

In fact, changes in organic matter in the soil appear to be ten times more important than greenhouse gas emissions in the rest of the supply chain, or putting up solar panels or running electric tractors.

“Pay attention to the big picture, changes in how we produce (crops) have very large effects,” he said. “Part of improving agricultural production can essentially substitute biology for inputs, thus reducing input and production costs.

“I think we have a unique opportunity here as organic agriculture producers to take action,” he said. “It is something we can do and I think it is something that the public can embrace.”

Agriculture and climate change

Silva said that studies have estimated that agriculture accounts for about 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, and that leaves out electricity the sector uses for lighting greenhouses, for example, or the energy required to produce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic farming can help reduce the effect of some of those “embedded” emissions in the production process, she said.

Dorn agreed that organic farming can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“There is a lot of direct emissions from agriculture, and I think the real opportunity is carbon capture, or increasing organic matter in our agricultural production systems,” he said.

That can be done cost effectively, he said. In fact, growers could potentially be compensated for playing a role in reducing emissions.

If farmers quantify and collect data on their roles in improving water quality, carbon capture, flood mitigation, biodiversity, and pollinator habitat, it is possible they could get compensated for those efforts, he said.

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