Scientists: Farmers must fight global warming with conservation

By Molly Wood, AP writer
Copyright 1998 Associated Press
September 29, 1998

As global warming threatens to change the face of agriculture in America, scientists and lawmakers said farmers themselves can help slow down the process - using conservation practices that have been preached for decades.

"Global warming is clearly a potential problem for (farmers)," Sen. Bob Kerrey, R-Neb., said Tuesday. Kerrey spoke as part of a conference call to discuss solutions to global warming and its impact on farms.

"Almost any change in the weather can produce a very negative impact" for farmers, Kerrey said. "We've got a lot at stake here."

Global climate change could rearrange the traditional mosaic of American farming, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a scientist at the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

"What we see when we work with agriculture scientists around the country is ... shifts in major commodity growing regions," she said.

For example, she said, corn crops in the wheat belt could shift northward as warmer temperatures allow for the growth of corn and wheat further north.

The demand for irrigation water may increase with global warming, she said. In addition, pests, weeds, insects and plant diseases likely will change.

"While there are ways that we can deal with all of these things, all of them kicking in at once could be quite significant," Rosenzweig said.

Kerrey and others said part of the answer lies in traditional soil conservation practices - practices that can reduce the effects of global warming while they increase the productivity of agricultural land.

Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University, said 116 million tons of carbon is released into the atmosphere each year from agricultural activities in the United States.

"If we manage our soil resources properly, we can put some of that carbon back from the atmosphere into the soil," Lal said.

Lal and John Kimble, a scientist at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service National Soil Survey Laboratory in Lincoln, Neb., are co-authors of a book on keeping carbon in farmland soil to help lessen the greenhouse effect.

"Our study shows that we have potential to put back into the soil something like 200 to 250 million tons of carbon every year through better practices," Lal said.

Kimble and Lal said the federal Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Program, which include conservation buffers, grazing wetland restoration and converting marginal land to pasture land, can help farmers retain carbon in soil.

Keeping carbon in the soil controls the emission of carbon dioxide - a greenhouse gas that is a major cause of global warming - and also improves soil and water quality, Lal said.

"We have a win-win situation," he said.

Kerrey said the government should find ways to reward farmers who take advantage of management practices that protect the environment.

"We can write laws to increase incentives and give farmers credit for what they're doing right now," Kerrey said. "The worst thing is to bury your head in the sand. You cannot cut yourself off from global climate change."

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