BioCycle November 2004, Vol. 45, No. 11, p. 56
How sustainable agriculture can generate multiple benefits to protect water and soil quality, while maximizing the potential to reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases.
Thanks to funding from the Paul G. Allen Charitable Foundation, the Washington State University Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) has a new five-year research project investigating the potential for agricultural systems to address one of the most pressing ecoconcerns of the day. Our Climate Friendly Farming Research and Demonstration Project is implementing practices and technologies that maximize the potential to improve global climate conditions.
Climate change is caused by the build-up of greenhouse gases (GHGs), such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), in the atmosphere. This build- up of GHGs trap additional heat within the earth’s atmosphere, leading to the long-term warming trends that we have seen over the past 150 years. Responses to global climate change are urgently needed.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the current rate of global warming is the fastest in recorded history and has already started to disrupt many biological and ecological systems on the planet, which has significant ecological and economic ramifications. Recent predictions by the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group (as published in Science Magazine) indicate that climate change could have severe consequences for water resources in the Pacific Northwest. The Cascade Mountain snow packs could be reduced by as much as 60 percent in the next 50 years, reducing the reservoir of stored water for irrigation, hydroelectric power, fish, recreational and residential needs. Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes even more dire predictions for the Sierra Nevada Mountain chain in the southwestern U.S. These disruptions are occurring at a time when agriculture is expected to provide multiple benefits, such as environmental quality and bioenergy resources, while still increasing food output for a growing human population.
The questions behind the research are: 1) How does agriculture currently contribute to climate change; and 2) How can agricultural systems and practices be changed to help mitigate climate change. Current agricultural practices are responsible for emissions of each of the three most important GHGs. Continuous soil disruption through tillage releases stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, while also degrading soil quality and structure leading to environmental problems such as soil erosion. Inefficient irrigation water and nutrient management leads to the loss of excess nitrogen through the emission of N2O from the soil and loss of nitrogen into the groundwater. The practice of storing dairy manure in large lagoons creates the anaerobic conditions that generate substantial emissions of CH4 into the atmosphere, as well as creating odor and potential ground and surface water pollution.
There are three key ways that agricultural systems and practices can be changed to help mitigate climate change: 1) Current sources of GHG emissions can be reduced; 2) New practices can be implemented that sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it permanently in the soil; and 3) Renewable bioenergy resources (such as manure waste to energy technologies) and energy efficiency technologies can reduce the use of and dependence on fossil fuel energy sources.
THE RESEARCH PROJECT
Environmental monitoring, technology development, computer modeling and socioeconomic evaluation will be conducted on three farming systems of importance to the Pacific Northwest and the world: Dairy; Irrigated vegetable; and Dryland grain.
The dairy component of the project will focus on the improvement and use of anaerobic digestion technology to capture methane from dairies and use it for bioenergy generation. Environmental modeling will be used to help determine the potential of anaerobic digestion and support decision making for improved nutrient management, water quality, renewable energy production and GHG mitigation. The Anaerobic Digestion team is working on process improvements to AD technology that will reduce capital costs and improve the functioning of the digester. Team members are also investigating additional high-value coproducts from the digestion process, such as high value uses for the digested fiber and nutrient extraction from the digester effluent, to help offset the costs of anaerobic digesters and make them a viable technology for farmers to adopt.
The cropping components will focus on the reduction of soil disturbance through reduced tillage practices, such as direct-seeding, as well as improved nutrient and water management and crop rotations. The research will document the potential of various cropping systems to sequester carbon. A robust environmental model is being developed to determine the potential of these practices to mitigate climate change and will provide the baseline data necessary for development of a carbon credit market for farmers in the Pacific Northwest and around the world.
The socioeconomic component of the project will study the adoption of recommended practices and technologies. Research by the USDA Economic Research Service indicates that the economic potential for agriculture to mitigate climate change currently falls far short of the technical potential. Understanding the financial and nonfinancial factors that influence farmer adoption is critical for designing public policies that will facilitate the adoption of practices and technologies with the greatest potential to mitigate climate change. In addition to financial analysis, cost-benefit analysis, and adoption studies, the research team will evaluate the emerging socioeconomic structures and business models that enable producers, communities and local industry to reap the most benefit from adopting recommended practices.
The final component of the project is the outreach and demonstration of Climate Friendly Farming practices and technologies. Team members are coordinating a variety of methods of providing information to farmers, agricultural professionals and the public on the benefits of Climate Friendly Farming.
IMPACTS OF PROJECT
It is expected that the project will have local, regional, and global impacts. Change in agriculture has historically followed the “adoption curve”, with a small number of innovators trying an untested practice and refining it, followed by the more numerous early adopters, and then the bulk of the farmers. We anticipate that the combination of farm demonstrations with socioeconomic analysis will lead to rapid adoption of project findings, particularly those that have low capital requirements and those where we can clearly demonstrate multiple benefits to farmers, communities and local industry.
The project will determine the potential reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the three farm systems – dairy, irrigated vegetable and dryland grain – as well as the potential to sequester carbon in the soils. Documentation of these values will be of increasing importance to farmers and policy makers as new international agreements on climate change are established and markets for carbon credits expand in the next few years. In addition to greenhouse gas mitigation, the results of this project will contribute to conservation and recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus. Efficient utilization of these nutrients not only reduces the need for fertilizer resources, but also reduces energy required in fertilizer manufacturing.
In addition, proper combination of technologies for enhancing C sequestration with manure nutrient management in the farming systems will be helpful in improving water quality and soil conservation. Soil erosion can be as high as 10-30 tons per acre per year, and existing technology can reduce this to near zero, thus protecting the land’s productivity and keeping sediment and associated agrochemicals out of surface waters. Finally, there is a close interplay between agriculture, climate change and renewable energy, and the research and outreach of this project will enable the emergence of a significant bioenergy (power, fuels, and products) industry in the Pacific Northwest.
The systems orientation and scope of this research enables the research team to investigate many related issues, such as climate change, soil quality and renewable energy, together as a comprehensive whole. In addition, the project is creating opportunities for key partnerships and new avenues of research and education that will further agricultural sustainability and economic vitality in the Pacific Northwest.
Chad Kruger is Director of the Outreach, Climate Friendly Farming Research & Demonstration Project at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources in Wenatchee, Washington. General inquiries about the project can be directed to Chad Kruger, Director of Outreach, at email@example.com or 509-663-8181 x235.