During a WPHA board of directors meeting in Fresno, I was fishing for some story ideas to research for this column. With all the recent news reports and public focus on global warming, one of our members suggested it would be beneficial to explore if and how agriculture is doing its part to lessen its own carbon footprint.

I decided to run with the idea but quickly hit a roadblock. It seems because the issue of global warming is so new – and, in fact, some people discount the idea that it is occurring at all – there have been very few studies dealing with the topic, agriculturally or otherwise.

I did, however, stumble across a story out of a Santa Rosa newspaper that mentioned that a one-of-a-kind environmental study will focus on a vineyard conversion project in Annapolis in Sonoma County that will analyze carbon storage and its release.

For the first time in the county, an environmental impact report will study future land usage on a grand scale while taking into consideration how its usage will impact global warming.

The project involves the vast Preservation Ranch vineyard and timber conversion plan that will place about 1,800 acres of vineyards on 20,000 acres of heavily logged land in the county’s northwest section. The developer is Premier Pacific Vineyards of Napa.

To understand some of the rapidly evolving lexicon of the global warming debate, I discovered it is important to know the term “carbon sequestration.” In a nutshell, carbon sequestration is the process through which carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is removed and captured in trees, crops and soil through agriculture and forestry practices. The term “sinks” is also used to describe agricultural and forest systems that absorb CO2, the most important global warming gas emitted by human activities.

Agricultural and forestry practices can also release CO2 and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Sequestration activities can help prevent global climate change by enhancing carbon storage in trees and soils, preserving existing plant and soil carbon capturing sinks, and by reducing emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide.

Carbon sequestration is a new issue for county projects, according to Scott Briggs, manager for the county’s environmental review division.

“We really haven’t ever dealt with a conversion of this size and the cutting down of trees. Even though this is a timber business and the country needs the lumber, the popular perception is that we will be adding to the problem by cutting down trees,” Briggs told Western Farm Press.

“There’s a misconception that the conversion will clear-cut trees throughout the entire 1,800 acres, when, in fact, some of the area has no trees and has several meadows.”

He added that besides the cutting down of trees, a bigger controversy targets the “ripping out” and disturbance of the soil and the implications this has on carbon sequestration.

It’s one thing to quantify the carbon amounts stored in trees and soil or released into the atmosphere. It’s another to rule which amounts are allowed or unacceptable. Briggs says this will be a cumulative undertaking by local and state environmental agencies, but the final word will be left up to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

While national research into global warming is pretty much in its infancy, the fertilizer industry has committed to an in-depth study of whether fertilizers are substantial contributors to global warming. The study is multifaceted, with industry and agriculture working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to develop and gather scientific information on the issue.

For example, CDFA is funding research that will measure and model the emission of nitrous oxide from crop systems to which nitrogen fertilizer has been applied through its Fertilizer Research and Education Program, which was created to address fertilizer-related environmental issues.

CDFA-funded research activities are part of a larger collaborative research effort with the California Air Resources Board and the California Energy Commission, that are also supporting research projects to understand the fundamental baseline nitrous oxide emission levels from nitrogen fertilizer use in the state’s diverse agricultural systems. The collaborative research work is being completed with scientific experts from California State University – Fresno and the University of California, Davis. The research results are expected to provide fundamental information on the emission of greenhouse gas from agriculture and possible mitigation measures.

Dealing more directly with how agriculture is currently lessening its carbon footprint, one big effort under way also involves fertilizers. Because nitrogen fertilizer is associated with nitrous oxide emissions, and because the global warming potential of nitrous oxide is so much greater than CO2, nitrogen fertilizer best management practices – many of which have been around for years – are now being seen in a new light.

These best management practices, or BMPs, are more important today than ever before and are based on the simple concept of matching the nutrient supply with crop requirements, while minimizing nutrient losses from fields, according to Dr. Clifford Snyder, Nitrogen Program director at the International Plant Nutrition Institute. Snyder, who responded to my inquiries via e-mail, and his colleagues have written several articles about global warming and how the fertilizer industry is working toward reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint. One of his papers, “Fertilizer Nitrogen BMPs to Limit Losses that Contribute to Global Warming,” has become a treatise on the subject.

One important stewardship program involves what is commonly referred to in the industry as the 4 Rs paradigm. Promoting the use of the right fertilizer product (match fertilizer type to crop needs) at the right rate (match amount of fertilizer to crop needs), right time (match nutrients available when crops need them) and right place (keep nutrients where crops can use them), has become the cornerstone for communicating about BMPs with crop customers in the United States and abroad. This is one example of how agriculture is actively working to reduce its carbon footprint, Snyder notes.

Properly balanced plant nutrition with fertilizer BMPs maximizes the capture of CO2 through crop photosynthesis and carbon sequestration; crop productivity per unit of land area is therefore optimized, while also achieving farmer profitability and sustainability goals. Any fertilizer BMP that increases crop yields, nutrient uptake, and recovery of applied nutrients is likely to minimize or limit the potential for undesirable nutrient losses to water and air resources.

“We are making considerable efforts to extend good management information to crop advisers, the fertilizer industry, Extension workers, farmers, the public, and selected leaders in the USDA and EPA,” Snyder said.

“We have also supported some limited research to evaluate fertilizer management impacts on global warming emissions, but such studies are quite expensive; often 10 to 20 times more expensive than traditional agronomic studies. In the absence of more agricultural research, production agriculture may face the risk of policies that could constrain production; policies that may be based on modeling, but which may not be regionally or locally calibrated or validated.”

Snyder summed up his thoughts by pointing out the importance of both agriculture professionals and industry detractors working together in arriving at environmental solutions.

“It is our hope that recognition of these environmental challenges and the continued need for an abundant, nutritious and inexpensive food supply will stimulate discussions and opportunities for agricultural and environmental groups to come together in developing support for well-planned research,” he said.

“We need science-based solutions for reductions in global warming emissions associated with crop production systems. Farmer profitability, sustainability of soil productivity, and protection of the environment must all be considered.