Support food that fights climate change

By Lynetta Usher Griner, Jim Strickland, and Jack Payne
Special to the Lake Okeechobee News

FLORIDA — As your farmers, foresters, ranchers, and agricultural scientists, we know you’re buying based on more than price. We see it when you spend extra for grass-fed beef, organic produce, or cage-free eggs.

We believe there’s a market for food that fights climate change. Your tomatoes already take carbon from the air and lock it in the soil. Your steaks come from pastures that keep the planet a lot cooler than subdivisions do.

We want to do a lot more. With the right tools and incentives, farmers can be leaders in finding solutions to the climate crisis.

We’re your green infrastructure. Traditional infrastructure such as roads and sewers and fire stations get funded by taxpayers.

The green infrastructure of farms, pastures, and forests provide critical services, too, such as clean water and air and preserving land for future generations. But you don’t pay for those — we do.

We’re talking millions of acres of living air filters, for example, that can slow the warming of the planet. While they’re at it, they might even reduce asthma rates.

About a year ago a group of us started meeting as the Florida Climate Smart Ag Working Group to look for ways to make us even better climate citizens. What we’ve discovered is that even we don’t fully appreciate what we’re providing now.

That’s why our producer-led group will be the first of what we expect will be many agricultural organizations to get behind an idea developing at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences to take an inventory of the environmental benefits provided by Florida agriculture. In science, they’re called ecosystems services.

This inventory will help us identify what agriculture provides in addition to food, fiber, and fuel. Such cataloging of these “free” services can point the way toward establishing programs that can help farmers provide even more of them.

Yes, we want to cast greater shade, protect you from bigger floods, host wildlife on our properties, support rural economies, and do more for the health of bees and butterflies that pollinate food and non-food plants alike.

We also want to do more to fight climate change. We need science to show how farms can capture more carbon, how forests and pastures can clean more air.

We don’t deny that there’s a carbon footprint from running irrigation systems, fueling tractors, and unspooling acres of plastic sheeting over our plant beds. No matter what we do on this planet, though, we leave our footprints. Dinner for 7.8 billion can get messy.

We’re in this climate crisis together. Almost no one stands to lose more than farmers as temperatures rise, stronger hurricanes lash crops, and new pests ride in on heat waves.

Traditionally, farmers have not wanted to listen to scientists’ hand-wringing over a planet in peril. This is especially true when it involves farmers needing to change the way we manage our land.

We have come to understand and appreciate climate solutions we can deliver from the land. We’re now asking university researchers to help us help mitigate climate change. Some of these scientists are showing interest in analyzing agriculture’s costs and benefits to inform policy that will tilt that balance in the right direction.

We haven’t much talked about farming’s aesthetics, cooling, carbon sequestration and other intangibles because we haven’t identified them all. Nor have we measured them. It’s time for that to change.

If we want to acknowledge farmers who score high in offering these intangibles and encourage others to do so, we need scientists. They have the tools to figure out what it is of value that farms produce beyond food.

Your purchases of climate-smart food and your votes for representatives interested in incentivizing climate mitigation will strengthen our efforts. We’re all in this together.

We want our land to provide solutions to the climate crisis. In the long run, if we don’t, it won’t provide as much food.

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