Climate Change & Organic Farming

This article was written by Renata Brillinger, California Climate & Agriculture Network.

This is a good news and a bad news story. First, the bad news…

In June 2012, an international team of researchers released a report in the journal Nature warning that climate change, population growth, and environmental destruction are leading to a “tipping point” that will cause disastrous and irreversible biological changes across the globe. The authors say that we are poised at the point in history when uncontrollable ecological events are beginning to take place and without bold and immediate action, the Earth’s temperature and species composition will be dramatically altered by mid-century.

People across the country are feeling the personal and sometimes tragic effects of climate change. Last year’s drought in Texas cost ranchers and farmers an estimated $8 billion in losses. 2012 is likely to be the hottest year in recorded history in the United States, and is the summer the Arctic ice pack shrunk to its smallest recorded size. And of course, just prior to the presidential election, super storm Sandy devastated the east coast, left tens of thousands homeless, and is estimated to cost $30 to $50 billion.

How might climate change impact California agriculture? Researchers warn of daunting climate change impacts including extreme and erratic weather events, even greater water scarcity, new pests and invasive species, heat stress for livestock and farmworkers, and diminished pollinators.

There’s plenty of ominous news but there are also ways that California’s organic farmers can contribute climate protection solutions and prepare to face new challenges. Even better news: there may soon be financial resources to help.

Organic growers have long known there are environmental benefits to their practices such as protecting water and air quality. It now appears that there are climate protection benefits as well. Research shows that organic farming systems have lower net energy footprints compared to conventional systems. Because most energy is produced by burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide (the most prevalent greenhouse gas), lower energy use means less climate change. Organic techniques like compost or manure inputs and cover cropping are showing promise for reducing emissions of both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Importantly, there are indications that organic practices, with their focus on improving soil organic matter, store or “sequester” more carbon in soil. This keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, effectively reversing the global warming trend.

As farmers face a future characterized by water scarcity, warmer temperatures, and extreme weather events, farm planning will take on new importance. Some ways to increase the resilience of farm operations include:

  • Decrease reliance on fossil fuel: Organic farmers already rely less on fossil fuels since they use no synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, but can strive to improve energy efficiency, reduce tillage, and generate on-farm renewable energy.
  • Focus on water conservation and water use efficiency: Water scarcity will lead to greater competition for water, driving up costs and limiting availability. Installing catchment ponds for winter water storage may be a good investment.
  • Increase soil organic matter: This maximizes fertility and improves water penetration and retention.
  • Diversify crops: Increased crop rotations, integration of perennial crops and hedgerows, and intercropping can help buffer against unexpected conditions and crop failures.

The state of California has precious few resources available to aid farmers in preparing for climate change impacts or implementing “climate-friendly” practices. Budget cuts have reduced the capacity of Cooperative Extension staff, and farm bill organic and conservation programs are under threat of budget cuts by Congress.

However, there is a potential new source of funding from California’s brand new cap-and-trade program. Starting in 2013, the state’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases (utilities, cement and steel factories, etc.) will have their emissions capped, and the caps will decline gradually each year. They will be required to purchase some of their permits to emit greenhouse gases in quarterly auctions. The first auction took place on November 14, 2012, and generated about $288 million in funds.

The California legislature and governor passed a law in September 2012 identifying eligible activities that could be funded by cap-and-trade revenue. Thanks to the advocacy of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) and many allies, the law states that some funds should be directed to sustainable agriculture. CCOF is a founding member of the CalCAN coalition, which serves as the voice of organic and sustainable agriculture on climate policy issues.

CalCAN is at the table advocating for state funding for more research, adequate technical assistance, and incentives for producers in the form of cost sharing, loans, and grants, to implement climate-friendly techniques. Farmer voices in this debate are critical and we invite you to learn more and join us!


Renata Brillinger is the executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network, a coalition of organic sustainable agriculture organizations focused on climate policy. More information on CalCAN is available at or by contacting Renata at