|Lush, productive farms that harbor abundant life above and below ground for as much of the year as possible are important in countering global warming.|
By Rhonda Houston
Snow banks reemerged in Maine this winter. Pulling into oncoming traffic became enough of an adrenaline rush for any extreme sport enthusiast, and as I write this on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, a few of us still await the January thaw. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned winter in Maine, putting to rest any nagging fear of global warming – unless Sir Peter Blake can be trusted.
Blake, a New Zealand yachtsman and celebrated explorer, phoned ministers from 80 countries who were meeting in Nairobi in February from an ice floe in King George’s Sound. Sir Peter was on an expedition to monitor the status of the ice for the United Nations Environment Program when he made a startling discovery. Where a glacier had resided for hundreds of thousands of years, now 100 miles of open, uncharted water flowed. The major breakup of ice on the shelf of Antarctica had to have taken place in the last eight to ten years. This rate of melting had not been forecast by even the most dire global warming projections. Blake’s call came just as political leaders were wondering how to salvage the recently collapsed meetings at The Hague and actually begin enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol.
Global Warming Effects
Some in the United States still question the reliability of climate change projections and the consequences they forecast. To admit to anything else is to jeopardize our thriving economy and three and four-car families.
Putting SUV slander aside, what are the facts of global warming? Hurricanes, cyclones and floods occurring between 1990 and 1995 cost the insurance industry 15 times as much as they did in the 1980s. The insurance industry no longer doubts global warming. Since 1983, the 11 hottest years on record have occurred. The past decade was the hottest in recorded history. Antarctica is melting. (Rachel’s Environment & Health News, #714, Rachel Massey, www.rachel.org) Whether we like it or not, we are now an interconnected global family facing a crisis that requires the cooperation of all. Fifty percent of the earth’s land mass and 70% of its people live in the tropics (including the state that elected our president) and stand to suffer the most. The earth is getting warmer, and though this may mean that we can finally harvest a sizable crop of watermelons in Maine, it may also mean devastating consequences for our planet.
Grow More Food Locally
As global citizens, how can we reverse the trends of global warming? The most apparent solution seems to be to reduce our carbon emissions, but how can we most efficiently do this without completely altering our lifestyles? We could start by purchasing lettuce from our neighbors, not from California. Thanks to the research of Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman, renowned growers from coastal Maine, we could be enjoying locally grown, emissions-friendly lettuce year round. Coleman has compared energy costs of one head of lettuce grown in California and one grown in Maine under a plastic greenhouse. Taking into account the polyethylene plastic required for the greenhouse as well as the “embodied energy” used in raw materials, production and delivery, a head of lettuce in Maine requires 203 BTUs. The proportional cost to grow and ship one head of lettuce 3200 miles from California to Maine on a semi-tractor-trailer truck is 3034 BTUs. Not accounting for the costs of truck manufacturing, refrigeration, highway construction and maintenance and pollution costs of burning 582 gallons of diesel fuel, the Maine lettuce requires only 7% as much energy as the California lettuce. (Farming the Back Side of the Calendar, by Eliot Coleman, Feb. 1998) This is good news for Maine farmers and for the environment. Buying lettuce locally may seem simplistic in response to such a complex problem, but it is a proactive choice nevertheless. As a senior at the University of Maine, I was disturbed by the response of a UME professor to the recently released report on Global Warming by the U.N.-sanctioned International Panel on Climate Change. When asked by Maine Times (Feb. 2, 2001 edition) reporter Meg Haskell about the results of the IPCC report, which projects a climate warming range of 2.5 to 10.4 degrees F. in the next century, Associate Professor Greg Zielinski responded that though he had not actually read the report, “it was not realistic to say we’ll change because of this kind of study.” I strongly disagree with Zielinski’s summation of Maine citizens and their willingness to change. If our academic and political leaders would stop questioning the unwavering science behind global warming and the inability of the common person to adapt, and would instead begin offering suggestions for actions, perhaps we’d all be eating Maine salads under a blanket of freshly fallen March snow for years to come.
Grow More Food Sustainably
Once again, organic farmers seem to have been on the cutting edge of environmentally sound practices, practicing for years what government researchers are just discovering. Agricultural Research Service scientist Don Reicosky recently reported that tillage actually releases carbon into the atmosphere, making tilled agricultural soils carbon sources, not sinks as U.S. officials at the Hague had hoped. In the blossoming research into the carbon sequestering potential of agricultural soils, land management techniques are being shown to be decisive factors in the legitimacy of the claimed carbon sinks. This is a basic fact: When more life is being created than destroyed in a soil, the soil becomes a carbon sink. When soil is disturbed through extensive tilling or chemical use, the soil becomes a carbon source – of up to 4 tons of carbon dioxide per acre of tilled land. Only agriculture that does not rely on extensive tilling or chemical use has the potential to be a carbon sink, carving out a sizeable niche for the organic farming industry to thrive. (Dan Reicosky, ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory, Morris, Minnesota; Tel. 320-589-3411; [email protected])
Farmers who practice conservation tillage – a growing sector of agriculture that includes most organic farmers – could potentially sequester 12 to14% of the carbon dioxide emitted from vehicle tailpipes and industrial smokestacks in this country. Emissions could reach 20 million tons this year, according to Marlen Eve, a soil scientist with the Agriculture Research Service. (Marlen Eve, ARS Soil, Plant & Nutrient Research, Fort Collins Colorado; Tel. 970-490-8820) With the costs to industry of meeting impending emission limits, this 12 to 14% is sizeable, perhaps enough to finally compensate organic farmers for their role in environmental conservation.
Eve and colleagues estimate that improved land management by all U.S. farmers, not only those currently adhering to organic tenets, could result in as much as 200 million tons of carbon a year being stored on U.S. croplands. At an estimated carbon value of $20 dollars a ton, that’s 4 billion dollars worth of carbon stored in conservatively managed croplands – quite an incentive to those farmers considering conversion to organic agriculture, and a much needed boost to those already practicing sustainable methods. The market for carbon emissions has already emerged, though there are no guarantees that our government will recognize the credits. Industry executives, especially those in the technology poor coal industry, have been scrambling to the Midwest, looking for farmers who are willing to strike deals based on the carbon sequestration capability of their soils. Similar contracts have been signed by several large industries from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the European Union. (“Cash for Carbon,” by Dennis Blank, E-Magazine, Jan./Feb. 2001) Canada, unlike the United States, has ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and is therefore in the market for innovative ways to reduce its emissions by 100 million metric tons per year. GEMCo, a Vancouver-based conglomerate of 10 Canadian utilities, has purchased options on 1.4 million acres of Iowa farmland, with plans to pay an average of $1.50 a ton for 2.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas credits. Australia has established a futures exchange for carbon credits and is expecting to do $5 billion (U.S.) dollars a year in transactions. The carbon emissions market moves forward, even as U.S. officials continue to deny the need for reduction.
What does the growing market for emissions trading mean for a farmer in Maine? It may mean monetary incentives for sustainable farming techniques, such as maintenance of woodlots, low or no-till practices, beneficial crop rotations and little or no chemical use. Organic farmers have always used these techniques, motivated often purely by ethical incentives, but now they may stand to profit from their carbon dioxide-friendly soils.
When can organic farmers expect to cash in on these sustainable practices? Thanks to our newly elected (?) president, it could be a while. By announcing in March that the United States has no intention of lowering carbon dioxide emissions, and even going as far as questioning whether carbon dioxide could even be considered a pollutant, the market for emission credits would seem to have collapsed. Luckily, however, all other industrialized nations have accepted the need to reduce or eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and are eyeing U.S. cropland as a first step in successful compliance.
About the author: Rhonda is a senior natural resources major at the University of Maine and a MOFGA staff person.