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climate change

Footnotes From the Field: Advancing Plant Health in the Anthropocene Epoch

in 2019/Climate Change/Footnotes from the Field/Summer 2019

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O.

CAN/GSB-32.310-2015: Amended March 2018

5.4.1 The main objective of the soil fertility and crop nutrient management program shall be to establish and maintain a fertile soil using practices that maintain or increase soil humus levels, that promote an optimum balance and supply of nutrients, and that stimulate biological activity within the soil.

We are in the Anthropocene Epoch.

Although the term Anthropocene Epoch, or the Human Epoch, has not yet received official approval as a recognized subdivision of geological time, in common jargon it refers to a new time epoch where human activities significantly impact and shift Earth’s geology and ecosystems. This includes climate changes due to the advent of agriculture, deforestation, and earthworm expansion, resulting in the increased release of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Small but Mighty

In addition to agriculture contributing to deforestation, it also promoted the dominance and spread of earthworm populations. A study in the journal Nature Climate Change reports that earthworms are small but mighty in their impact on the climate. A meta-analysis of previous studies suggests the worms may actually increase soil outputs of two key greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The study found that the presence of earthworms appears to increase soil outputs of CO2 by 33 percent and of nitrous oxide by 42 percent, demonstrating the essential role worms exert in determining the greenhouse gas balances of soils globally. Although earthworms are largely beneficial to soil fertility, they do increase net soil greenhouse gas emissions and that influence is expected to increase in the decades to come.

Decent into Glaciation Triggered by Earth’s Orbital Variations

Milutin Milankovitch, a Serbian Mathematics professor, theorized and then proved that Earth’s periodic glaciations are triggered by variations in Earth’s orbit. Milankovitch calculated the cyclical changes in climate based only on Earth’s orbital variation in relationship to the Sun caused by the additive effects of Orbital Eccentricity (100,000 year cycle), Axial Tilt (41,000 year cycle), and Precession (23,000 year cycle). The results demonstrated that over the last million years the climate has been varying between long glacial periods and short warming periods creating a cyclical 25% temperature variation at 65o North over the 100,000 year Milankovitch cycle.

A leading expert in Climate Change, Dr. Dan Britt, Pegasus Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences at the Department of Physics, University of Central Florida, has graphed out (Figure 1) the temperature divergence attributed to the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch, starting 10,000+ years ago with the advent of agriculture, deforestation, and earthworm expansion and leading up to the 20th century with fossil fuel consumption. The graph in Figure 1 shows the Milanovitch prediction for a cooling trend heading toward a glaciation period. The diverging lines indicate the actual temperatures (trending upwards) versus the prediction (trending downwards). Dr. Britt spent part of his scientific career studying ancient ice cores to determine temperature conditions and can attest to the results he presents in his lectures and publications.

The Plant Health Pyramid

Fortunately, while agriculture, deforestation, and earthworms were releasing the first 50 percent of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases, farmers and scientists were making advances in understanding the promoters of plant, soil, and ecosystem health.

An example of a leading advancer of plant and soil health is John Kempf and his Plant Health Pyramid method of crop production. John started the “Advancing Eco Agriculture” website as a platform to share plant health knowledge and it is worth checking out (https://www.advancingecoag.com/). Kempf based his plant health approach on ideas put forward in a book written by Francis Chaboussou, Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution, published in 2005. Chaboussou proposes a theory of plant health that he calls ‘Trophobiosis’. The foundation concept is that insects and diseases are unable to use food sources comprised of complete proteins and carbohydrates.

According to John Kempf, “the degree of plant health and immunity is based on a plant’s ability to form structurally complete compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins. Complete carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are formed by healthy plants with a fully functional enzyme system, which is dependent on trace mineral enzyme cofactors.” In order for plants to form complete compounds they need certain micronutrients along with environmental factors.

Figure 2: Source John Kempf, Advancing Eco Agriculture

Here is a thumbnail sketch description of John Kempf’s Plant Health Pyramid (also see Figure 2):

Phase #1: Complete Photosynthesis

Complete photosynthesis is the foundation of plant health and growth. As the plant harnesses the sun’s energy into sugars, the first sugars to form are simple monosaccharides. As the plant secures more resources they can produce complex sugars such as cellulose, pectin, and starches, and the plants become more resistant to soil born pathogens. John’s experience shows that soil pathogens decrease as a problem when the plants are fully and actively photosynthesizing.

Phase #2: Complete Protein Synthesis

During phase 2 the plant translocates up to 70% of energy production in the form of sugars to the roots and the surrounding rhizosphere microbial and fungal communities. In exchange for plant sugars the rhizosphere communities deliver essential trace minerals and nutrients from the soil that the plant uses to make enzyme cofactors that are then used in the manufacture of complete carbohydrates and proteins.

If the plant does not have access to these essential trace minerals it cannot make the catalytic enzymes that change single amino acids into complete proteins. Kempf says that insects target plants that have lots of free amino acids (incomplete proteins), because they have simple digestive systems. If plants have been able to transform the amino acids into complete proteins then they are not susceptible to insects with simple digestive systems such as whiteflies, cabbage loopers, corn earworm, alfalfa weevil, or tomato hornworm, to name a few.

Phase #3: Increased Lipid Synthesis

Most conventional crops do not develop past phase 2 development. This where providing the essential trace mineral needs of the plant pays off in the development of increased immunity. By now the plant has enough energy production that sugars can be converted to fats (lipids) and used to make stronger cell membranes. Through Kempf’s field experience it appears that plants with higher lipid content are more resistant to airborne pathogens such as powdery mildews, rust, blights, and more.

Phase #4: Increased Secondary Metabolites (Protective Polyphenols)

As the plant continues to develop under optimum trace mineral conditions, the sugars continue to convert to fats, which can then be modified into complex oil chains called polyphenols. These complex polyphenol chains are the protective essential oils, which include terpenoids, bioflavinods, carotenoids, tannins, and more. At this level of immunity with polyphenol production, plants can resist insects with more complex digestive systems such as beetles. The polyphenols also possess anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.

Lipids are also exuded through the roots into the rhizosphere. The soil rhizosphere fungi uses these lipids to form the macro molecules of soil stabilizing humic substances. The formation of humic substances in turn increases the bioavailability of trace minerals and nutrients from the soil to the plants, and optimum soil and plant health balance has been achieved.

In the Anthropcene Epoch, advances in understanding plant and soil nutrition are helping to hone the agricultural techniques required for optimum biomimicry practices to enhance soil and plant and health. Here’s a cheer for “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, and Healthy People” as we continue to manage food production wisely in the Age of Discovery in the Human Epoch.


Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA VO and Organophyte.

Feature image: Figure 1: Source: Dr. Dan Britt: Orbits and Ice Ages 2018. Edited to indicate the beginning of agriculture.

References:
1. Britt, D. (2018). Orbits and Ice Ages: Climate During the Last Three Million Years. University of Central Florida. life.ucf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/1-19-10-Britt-2.pdf
2.  Lubbers, I.M., van Groenigen, K.J., Fonte, S.J., Six, J., Brussaard,L., van Groenigen, J.W. (2013). Greenhouse-gas emissions from soils increased by earthworms. Nature Climate Change: 3:187. doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1692.
3. Morello, L. (2013). Earthworms Increase Soils’ Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Climate Central. climatecentral.org/news/earthworms-increase-soils-greenhouse-gas-emissions-study-finds-15549
4. Kempf, J. (2016). Crop Health Transitions – Pest and disease-resistant crops. Advancing Eco Agriculture. advancingecoag.com/johns-posts

Wildfire Prevention and Farm Safety

in 2019/Climate Change/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2019

Wendy Bennett, CRSP, Executive Director, AgSafeBC

It’s only been two years since one of British Columbia’s most devastating wildfire seasons. In 2017 over 1.2 million hectares were destroyed by 1,353 wildfires in the Cariboo, Kamloops, southeast and coastal regions. According to recent forecasts, this summer could be another long, hot, and dry one.

The effects of wildfires on the agricultural community are devastating. Recognizing potential fire hazards, knowing how to reduce the risk, and planning for a possible emergency will help you reduce the possibility of damage to your property or injury to you or your workers.

CAUSES

Approximately half of wildfires in BC are caused by humans and an out of control farm fire could spark a wildfire. The source of many farm fires goes undetermined due to significant damage, but there are three general causal categories for farm fires.

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL

  • Short circuit or ground fault in electrical equipment.
  • Failure of built-in automatic controls in mechanical equipment or systems.
  • Improper use of extension cords.

MISUSE OF IGNITION SOURCE OR IGNITING EQUIPMENT

  • Improperly discarded smoker’s material and smoking where flammable vapours are present.
  • Ignition source left unattended.

DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION, OR MAINTENANCE DEFICIENCY 

  • Improperly constructed building, feature or system.
  • Improperly installed heating appliance too close to combustible building features.
  • Improper facility maintenance (e.g. failure to remove accumulation of combustible dust or debris).
  • Faulty product design causes a fire even when the product is installed and used correctly.
Credit: Wendy Bennett, CRSP Executive Director AgSafeBC

MITIGATION

Those involved in agriculture can take measures to prevent or significantly reduce the chances of a large-scale fire occuring. Start by installing a detection system and test it regularly.

Controlling your environment is important. Maintain a well cleaned workplace free of flammable materials. Collect and remove generated waste, including solids, semi-solids and liquids.

Clearing vegetation and flammable debris away from fences and structures by at least 10 metres will help mitigate the risk as well. Make sure to be in compliance with all regulations and acts pertaining to the clearing of standing trees larger than 6 inches in diameter.

Compliance also applies to open burning. In B.C. you must contact the BC Wildfire Service to obtain a Burn Registration number before doing any open burns.

When using equipment or tools, ensure that the equipment is bonded or grounded properly and tools don’t give off sparks.

Check the Government of BC Wildfire Status website regularly to report or monitor the status of fires in your area.

PREPAREDNESS

Planning is essential for emergency preparedness. Begin by doing a risk assessment of the worksite(s) and develop a realistic Emergency Response Plan (ERP). Your ERP should include the following:

  • Map of your property, including Crown and lease land.
  • List of your workers and their locations.
  • List of hazardous materials and a safety data sheet of all liquid and spray chemicals and their locations.

Establish and rehearse pre-determined escape routes as well as livestock evacuation procedures. Check-in protocols are important at all times, more so during an emergency. The worker location list along with a check-in process or buddy system will help you locate and identify any missing worker, visitor, or family member on your property.

RESPONSE

Should you have to address fire on your property, implement your Emergency Response Plan. Retrieve your map and locate your workers, family members and visitors on site and instruct them to follow the ERP.

Check the area. If flammable products are present leave immediately and alert firefighters. Determine whether electricity needs to be turned off and remove any extra vehicles or machinery from the area around the fire to clear space for fire service equipment.

If you have to leave the property, check DriveBC.ca or tune into your local radio station for road closures and updates.

Dealing with a large-scale emergency often requires assistance from others. If you are part of a community emergency response program follow the plan.

A note on small spaces:

In an enclosed space, even a small fire can become uncontrollable very quickly. To prevent a fire or explosion in an enclosed space, isolate any source of power or flow of materials so that it cannot possibly enter the space. The isolation method must be locked in place to be certain that it cannot be inadvertently removed or fail in some other way.

Wildfire smoke over Kelowna, BC. Credit: Jack Borno

WILDFIRE SMOKE: Frequently Asked Questions

Excerpted from WorkSafeBC

What is in wildfire smoke? 

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of particles and gases containing hundreds of chemicals. The smoke contains large amounts of fine particulate matter, as well as gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Depending on the type of materials burned, the smoke may also contain sulfur oxides, volatile organic compounds, and other compounds such as hydrocarbons and formaldehyde that are known to be carcinogenic. These components can vary greatly over time, from fire to fire, and from area to area within a fire zone.

What are the potential health effects of wildfire smoke? 

There are a number of potential health effects associated with wildfire smoke. Inhaling fine particles of smoke has been linked with the aggravation of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Workers exposed to wildfire smoke may raise concerns about long-term health effects, such as an increased risk of cancer or other chronic health problems. In general, however, the long-term health risks from short-term exposure to low or moderate levels of smoke during a wildfire event are considered to be quite low.

The potential for adverse health effects from wildfire smoke depends on the level and duration of exposure, age of the workers, individual susceptibility, and other factors. For these reasons, not everyone exposed to smoke will be affected in the same way.

What are some common symptoms of smoke exposure? 

Breathing in smoke can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. It can also cause headaches and worsening of allergies. In healthy workers exposed to smoke for short periods of time, symptoms are likely to be temporary and will resolve when the smoke clears.

Workers with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — as well as workers with other chronic diseases, pregnant women, and older adults — are likely to experience more serious or acute symptoms. These symptoms can include shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and increased mucous production.

Be aware of other health issues related to wildfires, such as heat stress or heat exhaustion, and the need for workers to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water. In addition, remind workers of other safety hazards associated with wildfire smoke, such as reduced visibility.

My workers work outside. How can I limit their exposure to the smoke? 

The primary approach to minimize the health risks of wildfire smoke is to reduce contact with the smoke as much as possible.

If the nature of your work requires workers to be outside, look for ways to reduce workers’ level of physical activity when possible, since physical exertion can increase air intake as much as 20 times.

Consider the direction of the smoke and follow the air quality advisories in the area to schedule the work accordingly. For example, look for ways to relocate work to less smoky areas or reschedule it until the air quality improves. Keep in mind that some workers may be more susceptible to health effects from the smoke and may need additional measures to reduce their exposure.

For more information about AgSafe services or agriculture-related workplace safety call 1-877-533-1789 or visit AgSafeBC.ca


AgSafe is the non-profit health and safety association for B.C.’s agricultural producers. The organization provides site-specific consultation, on-site safety education, and online workplace safety resources and materials including Fire Safety Inspection Check Lists and an Agriculture Wildfire Plan template.

Feature photo credit: Wendy Bennett, CRSP Executive Director AgSafeBC

Resources:
Government of British Columbia Wildfire Services
BC Fire Smart

10 Actions to Prepare for Wildfire Season

in 2019/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2019

BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative

The impacts of climate change include hotter and drier summers, which means that wildfires are expected to become more frequent and intense. But ranchers can take steps to prepare for an emergency wildfire event and reduce risks to their operation.

The following actions are extracted from the Workbook: Wildfire Preparedness and Mitigation Plan and the Guide to Completing the Workbook, resources that were developed as part of the Regional Adaptation Program delivered by the BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI).

Funding to develop the Guide and Workbook was provided in part by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership as part of the Regional Adaptation Program.

1. Complete your farm/ranch wildfire preparedness plan

Go to BCAgClimateAction.ca/wildfire and download the Workbook and the Guide. 

The Workbook is available as fillable PDF so you can save and edit your plan as needed. The Guide walks you through detailed action planning for before, during and after a wildfire.

2. Prepare an agriculture operation map 

Guide p. 8-14

Maps are an essential step for wildfire preparedness, response and recovery and are especially useful for engaging with emergency services personnel.

3. Create a livestock inventory and prepare/plan for livestock protection

Workbook p. 7-8 and 16-21

Start by developing an inventory of your livestock, including types and numbers and their expected locations during fire season. Then review the list of options for protecting livestock and make necessary arrangements.

4. Reduce combustible materials and use fire-resistant materials on your property 

Guide p. 16-18

Sparks and ember showers can travel 2 kilometres ahead of a wildfire, and radiant heat can ignite combustible/flammable materials, such as fuel storage, within 10 metres.

To help mitigate these threats, remove combustible vegetation and materials surrounding agricultural operation structures. Consider using fire-resistant building materials, such as metal siding or asphalt roofs.

See the FireSmart Homeowner’s Manual for details.

5. Document vehicles and response equipment/resources 

Guide p. 16

Make special note of any water supply systems that are vulnerable to power/Internet outages, and be aware that water supply can be restricted and prioritized for use by agencies during a wildfire.

6. Document and confirm water resources and plan for sprinkler protection 

Guide p. 16 and Guide p. 18-19

Identify and confirm water sources that may be available for irrigation, sprinkler protection and response. Prepare in advance to install cisterns or other emergency sources if required. Review requirements for sprinkler protection of priority structures.

7. Review your insurance coverage 

Guide p. 20-22

Talk to your insurance broker annually to ensure you know what’s covered and what’s excluded. Take photos of your property and assets in their current state and condition.

8. Install a backup power system 

Workbook p. 13-14

Backup power ensures any critical equipment, such as feeding systems, will continue working in a prolonged power outage.

9. Sign up for wildfire alerts 

Workbook p. 14-15

Subscribe to your regional district’s emergency alert system if available. On Twitter, follow @BCGovFireInfo and @EmergencyInfoBC and turn on your mobile notifications to receive an alert each time they tweet.

10. Share your plan and update it annually 

Workbook p. 29

Make multiple physical copies of your plan and store them in operation buildings, keeping one copy in a personal vehicle. Save an electronic version to an off-site location. Ensure everyone living and working on your operation is familiar with the plan and knows where to find a copy. Share your plan summary with your regional district and other key response agencies and individuals.

Healthy Soils Yield Resilient Operations

in 2019/Climate Change/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Soil/Spring 2019/Tools & Techniques/Water Management

Three case studies examine soil management practices in the face of climate change

By Rachel Penner, BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative

Improving soil health is one way producers can increase the resilience of their operations in the face of climate change. The BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative (CAI) has supported multiple projects, with funding from the provincial and federal governments, evaluating practices to maintain or improve soil health. Case studies in three regions of the province offer some practical takeaways for farmers looking to adapt to changes in climate.

Okanagan: Adding Compost and Reducing Irrigation

Climate change is expected to increase average temperatures and lengthen the growing season in BC’s Interior, enabling cherry producers to expand production northward and grow crops at higher elevations. However, expanding production may be limited by challenges with managing soil pathogens and by water availability.

A three-year research project focusing on cherry production in the Okanagan resulted in two key findings: 

  • adding compost to old and new orchards helped maintain soil health
  • reducing post-harvest irrigation by 25% did not impact fruit yield or quality

Gayle Krahn, the horticulture manager at Coral Beach Farms, participated in the project. “It’s through these trials that growers gain the confidence needed to invest in mulches,” says Krahn. “As well, the results from the deficit irrigation studies gave us a good handle on how much water we need in our orchards. Climate change could affect our water supply, so we need to be mindful of our water usage while ensuring we can continue to grow healthy crops.”

Louise Nelson with the Biology department at UBC Okanagan led the three-year experiment. Researchers monitored the effects of compost and mulch applications, comparing results with controls in two new and one established orchard, and assessed the impacts of post-harvest deficit-irrigation.

The study, completed in 2018, revealed that adding compost to cherry orchards had the following impacts on the soil:

  • increased soil organic matter, total carbon and nitrogen, other mineral nutrients and pH
  • increased percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in leaves after two years
  • increased fruit firmness and stem pull
  • tended to increase total nematode abundance in soil
  • tended to decrease plant parasitic nematodes in plant roots and soil
  • decreased colonization of roots by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

“I would definitely recommend that growers invest in compost as it helps build soil structure, reduce moisture loss and keep soils cool during summer heat,” says Krahn. “The result is increased root growth and a healthier tree, which equates to growing quality fruit.”

The study also found that a 25% reduction in post-harvest irrigation had no impact on fruit yield and quality, stem water potential, tree growth, or leaf mineral content, giving producers greater assurance that they can safely decrease water usage in their cherry orchards post-harvest.

Delta: Using and Maintaining Tile Drains

Climate projections indicate that winter rainfall will increase and extreme rainfall events will double in frequency by the 2050s in BC’s Fraser River delta. This increase in moisture could prevent farmers from getting onto waterlogged fields, either to plant or to harvest, and could also increase soil erosion, nutrient runoff, and damage to crops.

However, effective spacing and maintenance of tile drains can increase the ability of producers to work their fields.

A project in Delta, completed in July 2017, evaluated practices for improving on-farm drainage management as a way to adapt to wetter spring and fall conditions. The project, led by three researchers in the Faculty of Land & Food Systems at UBC in collaboration with the Delta Farmers’ Institute, the Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust and local farmers, set up demonstration sites on two fields and monitored practices across a total of 30 fields in multiple locations.

The results of the two-year project indicated the following:

  • Using tile drains in vegetable crop fields increased workable days by 8% and by 14% when pumps where also used. (The impact was negligible for blueberry fields.)
  • Drain tiles spaced at 15 feet allowed soil to dry faster in the spring than drain tiles spaced at 30 feet.
  • Cleaning tile drains resulted in 12 extra workable days per year at a cleaning cost of $10/additional workable day/acre.

Central Interior: Practising Management-intensive Grazing

Management-intensive grazing, a practice that involves planned grazing and rest periods for pastures, is a context-dependent practice that can vary from one rancher and pasture location to the next, making it difficult to test the impact it has on soil.

A four-year project in BC’s Central Interior, completed in spring 2017, compared grazing practices and used traditional soil sampling methods, plant community composition and remote sensing to measure soil carbon. Results confirmed that management-intensive grazing increased soil carbon, which has important implications for soil health.

“What got me interested in grazing-management practices was the enthusiasm of the ranching community,” says Lauchlan Fraser, a professor at Thompson Rivers University who led the project. “I wanted to see if some of the claims that were being made held up.”

The data showed that, for intensively managed pastures, total carbon was 28% greater and organic carbon was 13% greater when compared to extensively managed pastures. It is widely agreed that this stored carbon is linked to soil health, and a fact sheet for the study stated that: “Benefits associated with greater soil carbon include soil moisture retention, erosion control and species biodiversity.”

These outcomes were experienced by the producers who participated in the study. All the ranchers reported that they saw improved soil moisture retention, which would help them cope better in a drought year. They also thought the practice would work as a tool to control invasive species and improve plant and animal diversity, both important contributors to resilient grazing systems.

“It would be worthwhile to follow up with doing the research required to test how biodiversity and soil moisture are influenced,” says Fraser.

While carbon sequestration is primarily associated with climate change mitigation, the project’s final report found additional implications for climate change adaptation: “Flexibility of electric fencing, and actively managing cattle on a daily basis, was identified to be an adaptation strategy, since a rancher is able to adapt his or her practices based on conditions which vary from one year to the next,” says Fraser.

Project Funding and Detailed Reports

For all three of the projects, funding was provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Program as part of the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program delivered by CAI.

Complete project results and fact sheets can be found on the CAI website at:

bcagclimateaction.ca


Rachel Penner is the Communications Specialist for the BC Agriculture & Food Climate Action Initiative. She grew up on a grain farm in southwestern Manitoba, received her journalism diploma in Alberta and spent time as a writer and editor in Saskatchewan. She now resides in Victoria, BC, where she works and volunteers as a communications designer and strategist.

Feature photo: Farm field in Delta, BC. Photo credit: CAI – Emrys Miller

Footnotes from the Field: Climate Change

in Footnotes from the Field/Spring 2019

Are We on the Brink of an Ecological Armageddon?

Marjorie Harris BSc, IOIA V.O.

The United Nations’ 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report identified that “biodiversity is an essential prerequisite for the maintenance of ecosystem services providing manifold benefits to human well-being.”

How is Climate Change Impacting the Biodiversity of our Planet’s Ecosystem?

Regional climate change hot spots have begun to undergo dramatic biodiversity reductions and, in some cases, ecosystem collapse due to temperature related food chain disruptions. Scientists in the field of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena relating to climate, plant, and animal life have found that rapid climate change is causing a decoupling of once synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Slower shifts in climate over geological time frames are well recognized natural and cyclic phenomena. Climate studies have demonstrated that a climate shift 6,000 years ago in northern Africa converted the Sahara grassland savannahs to desert sands. Archeological evidence has found cave paintings in the desert showing mermaids and swimmers in the now-dry local lakes.

How Can We Know that Human Activities are Actually Contributing to an Increase in Global Temperatures?

As the Industrial Revolution was being propelled forward by the burning of fossil fuels, the Greenhouse Effect began building as those fossil fuels released greenhouse gases. The Industrial Revolution began in the 1760’s in Europe and had rooted in North America by the 1820’s.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 39 percent and methane levels have risen to the highest concentrations in at least 650,000 years. These greenhouse gases prevent thermal radiation from leaving the Earth’s surface atmosphere with the ocean acting as a heat sink. The upper ocean layer’s heat content has increased significantly more in recent decades. As the ocean absorbs heat, waves, tides, and currents, move  that heat from warmer to cooler latitudes, and to deeper levels. Eventually this heat energy re-enters the land systems by melting ice shelves, evaporated water (rain), or by directly reheating the atmosphere. Heat energy stored in the ocean has a long life span—it can warm the planet for decades after it was absorbed.

Early oceanographers recorded ocean temperature data from 1872 to 1876 aboard the HMS Challenger. The ship sailed 69,000 nautical miles, recording 300 ocean temperature profiles at several depths. Fast forward to today’s Argo Project headed up by oceanographer Dr. Dean Roemmich. The Argo Project uses 3,000 free-drifting floats for long-term monitoring of global ocean temperatures and salinity every 10 days. In a recent scientific paper Dr. Roemmich reported the results, comparing today’s ocean temperatures to those taken by HMS Challenger’s crew. The study revealed an overall average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.59 degrees Celsius) at the ocean’s surface over the past 135 years.

Rising Ocean Surface Temperatures Directly Influence Global Weather Patterns

NASA scientists have developed computer simulations of historical weather data. These data described the ocean temperatures that created the weather conditions leading to the North American Dust Bowl from 1931 to 1939, considered to be the most significant meteorological event of the 20th century. NASA scientists found that the Atlantic Ocean surface temperature had risen by 1 degree Farenheit, and that the Pacific Ocean had experienced a cooling La Niña cycle. The combination triggered the drought weather patterns for the America Plains.

The Dust Bowl eroded 100 million acres into stripped and lacerated wastelands spanning Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, with dust storms severely affecting a total of 27 states. Farms in the Dust Bowl lost an average of 480 tons of topsoil per acre. By 1940, the Dust Bowl conditions had prompted the relocation of 2.5 million people. The infamous Black Sunday storm on April 14, 1935 measured 200 miles across by 2,000 feet high with winds at 65 mph. The dust blocked the sunlight causing temperatures to drop 25 degrees Farenheit in one hour. During one severe two-hour period on Black Sunday, the violent storm stripped away twice as much soil as had been dug out over seven years to build the Panama Canal.

Hugh Hammond Bennett became known as the father of soil conservation in his work as founder and head of the US Soil Conservation Service. Bennett identified poor farming practices, deep plowing, denuded soil, removal of trees, and drought as the main causes of the Dust Bowl.

Under Bennett’s leadership, the US Soil Conservation Service initiated a 30-year program to restore and mitigate the damages of the Dust Bowl, including the replanting of denuded land. Bennett also set up programs to teach farmers better land management techniques such as leaving crop stubble in the field after harvest. Additionally, in the 1930’s, the US government purchased 11.3 million acres and replanted native grasslands. However, damage to the land was so severe, that by the year 2,000 some areas were still barren of growth and blowing dust.

Light and Temperature-Sensitive Ecosystem Cycles

Bennet stated, “the Kingdom of Nature is not a democracy; we cannot repeal natural laws when they become irksome. We have got to learn to conform to those laws or suffer severer consequences than we have already brought upon ourselves.”5

Here we are some 80 years after Bennett’s warning, and status updates report that climate change is moving forward unabated. An important factor in climate change is the disruption of ecosystem relationships by decoupling synchronized light-sensitive cycles from temperature-sensitive cycles.

Farmers are familiar with counting heat units to time the application of pest controls. This is because many insects—as well as reptiles, and amphibians—use temperature-sensitive cycles as cues for hatching emergence. Sex selection for some reptiles, such as crocodiles, is temperature based—the temperature of incubation will determine the sex of the offspring. This leaves many reptiles at-risk: an entire sex can be removed from the reproductive landscape in a few breeding seasons.

Phytoplankton communities are losing biodiversity in the face of higher ocean temperatures as natural selection is for more heat-tolerant groups. Phytoplankton make up only 0.2 percent of global primary producer biomass, yet they are responsible for about 50 percent of the world’s primary food production. In addition, phytoplankton are key components in the global carbon cycle. Reduction in the biodiversity of phytoplankton communities changes the primary producer profiles and reduces the resilience of the ocean ecosystem.

The concept of an Ecological Armageddon is emerging — Dr. CA Hallmann reports an 82 percent decline in flying insects at 63 protected sites in Germany, over a 27-year study period. Hallmann notes, “loss of insects is certain to have adverse effects on ecosystem functioning, as insects play a central role in a variety of processes, including pollination, herbivory and detrivory, nutrient cycling, and providing a food source for higher trophic levels such as birds, mammals, and amphibians. For example, 80 percent of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination, while 60 percent of birds rely on insects as a food source.”

In Puerto Rico’s Luquillo rainforest, researcher Bradford C. Lister found that biomass loss  increased from 10 to 60 times over the 30-year study period. Lister’s analysis revealed a synchronous decline in lizards, frogs, and birds that eat insects. Lister determined that the forest temperature had risen 2.0 degrees Celcius over the study period—a temperature change that prevented insect eggs from hatching, and reducing food supply for animals higher up the food chain.

Light-sensitive activities for mammals and birds include migration, breeding, and predation. As well, some plants are reliant on light-sensitive cues for growth stimulation.

For example, caribou populations in the Artic are in decline due to the decoupling of temperature and light-sensitive cycles. Pregnant caribou migrate to birthing grounds based on light cues to time their arrival with the emergence of nutrient-rich plant growth. However, due to rising artic temperatures, the plants are germinating earlier. When the pregnant caribou arrive to their feeding grounds, plant nutrition has already decreased—resulting in malnourished caribou mothers producing fewer calves. Another light-sensitive lifecycle example is the change in the Arctic mosquito cycle. Migrating birds rely on the larval Arctic mosquitos as a rich food source, but the mosquitos are hatching earlier under warmer temperatures. When birds arrive, the mosquitos are in their adult form, and the birds are without a source of food. The now unchecked mosquito population impacts the caribou lifecycle when caribou calves are predated to death by unusually gigantic swarms of blood-sucking adult mosquitos.

The butterfly effects of climate change on the intricacies of the planetary food web are only just emerging. Hopefully, we can adapt before an Ecological Armageddon occurs.


Marjorie Harris (BSc, IOIA VO) is an organophyte, consultant, and verification officer in BC. She offers organic nutrient consulting and verification services supporting natural systems.

References:
Roemmich, D, Gould WJ, Gilson J. 2012. 135 years of global ocean warming between the Challenger expedition and the Argo Programme. Nature Climate Change. 2:425-428.  10.1038/nclimate1461
NASA Explains the Dust Bowl Drought: nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2004/0319dustbowl.html
Handy Dandy Dust Bowl Facts: kinsleylibrary.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Handi-facts.pdf
The Dust Bowl: u-s-history.com/pages/h1583.html
The Dust Bowl, an illustrated history, Duncan & Burns, 2012 (pages 160 – 162)
Climate Change: Ocean Heat Content: climate.gov/news-features/      understanding-climate/climate-change-ocean-heat-content
Temperature and species richness effects in phytoplankton communities. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3548109/
Lister, B.C. Department of Biological Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic University, Troy, NY 12180 pnas.org/content/115/44/E10397.short
More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas: journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005: was called for by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2000 in his report to the UN General Assembly, We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.

California Programs Show How Farmers Are Key to Reversing Climate Change

in 2019/Climate Change/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Winter 2019

Shauna MacKinnon

From extreme flooding to drought and previously unheard of temperature variability, climate change is a serious matter for BC organic growers. While agriculture is feeling more than its share of climate change impacts, a set of solutions exist where farmers and ranchers play a key role. Land-based climate solutions can avoid and absorb enough greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to be equivalent to a complete stop of burning oil worldwide.

This contribution is too important to ignore. An article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences assessed 20 cost effective land-based climate solutions applied globally to forests, wetlands, grasslands, and agricultural lands. These conservation, restoration, and land management actions can increase carbon storage and reduce GHG emissions to achieve over a third of the GHG reductions required to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated emissions reductions are not enough to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts: we need to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. Farmers and ranchers can help do this through practices that sink carbon in soil and vegetative cover.

In California, the fifth largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the world, climate change poses a major threat—drought, wildfire, and a reduction in the winter chill hours needed for many of the state’s fruit and nut crops are already taking a toll on production. California is a leader in climate change policy with ambitious GHG reduction goals, but the state is also recognizing that reductions alone are not enough. California is implementing programs and policies that put the state’s natural and working lands, including wetlands, forests, and agricultural lands, to work sinking carbon.

Field of green rye and legume with mountains in the background and blue sky
Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

Carbon Farming: Agriculture as Carbon Sink

Dr. Jeffrey Creque, Director of Rangeland and Agroecosystem Management at the Carbon Cycle Institute in California, is a carbon farming pioneer. It all started with a conversation between himself and a landowner in Marin County. “We were talking about the centrality of carbon to management and restoration of their ranch and watershed,” explains Creque. “That led to a larger conversation about carbon as something they could market and then how exactly we could make that happen.”

The carbon farming concept was founded on early research in Marin County that showed land under management for dairy had much higher carbon concentrations than neighbouring land. This led to research trials by University of California, Berkeley in partnership with local ranches that showed a single year of compost application yielded higher annual carbon concentrations for at least 10 years. In the initial year the compost itself was responsible for some of those carbon additions, but additional annual increases in soil carbon came from carbon being pulled from the atmosphere. The one time, half inch application of compost stimulated the forage grasses to increase carbon capture for a decade or more.

This was enough for researchers to take notice. Producer partners were happy to see the increased yields in forage production that resulted from the compost application. Those first results led to the development of a carbon farm planning tool. “After seeing those results everyone was excited about compost. But we wanted to see what else we could do,” states Creque.

Using the existing USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service farm planning process as their template (the US equivalent of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan), Creque and his colleagues re-formulated the approach by putting the goal of maximizing carbon sequestration at the centre of the process. The carbon farm planning tool was the result. The first farm in Marin County completed a Carbon Farm Plan in 2014; today, 47 farms across California have completed plans and about 60 more are waiting to begin.

Along with compost applications, other carbon farming practices include riparian restoration, silvopasture (the intentional combination of trees, forage plants, and livestock together as an integrated, intensively-managed system), windbreaks, hedgerows, and improving grazing practices. Over 35 practices are considered in carbon farm planning. For high impact, riparian restoration is one of the best performers. The high productivity of riparian ecosystems means a large amount of carbon can be sunk in a relatively small part of farmers’ and ranchers’ total land area.

Preparation for planting of a one mile windbreak on a Carbon Farm in NE CA. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute

Impact and the Potential for Scaling Up

The adoption of carbon farming practices on one California ranch is equivalent to taking 850 cars worth of carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it into the ground. This ranch has also tapped into new markets for their wool by being eligible for the Climate Beneficial program offered by Fibershed, a network that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems on behalf of independent working producers. A win-win at the farm-scale. But collective impact holds the most potential. “No one farm can ameliorate climate change, but collectively with many farms involved they can have a big impact,” Creque emphasizes.

The implementation of carbon farming practices in California is greatly helped by numerous federal, state, and county level programs that offer cost share contributions. Farmers and ranchers can receive direct grants to implement carbon farming practices from programs such as the national Environmental Quality Improvements Program and California State’s Healthy Soils program. But it has been challenging to convince the government agencies involved in managing climate change of the valuable role agriculture can play.

More and more local climate action plans are being developed, but most fail to consider what natural or working lands can offer to GHG mitigation strategies. “The beauty of agriculture land is that since we are already managing them, not as big of a change is required to manage them differently,” Creque concludes.

Rye & legume cover crop at Full Belly Farm, Guinda, California. CalCAN Farm Tour, March 2017. Photo by Jane Sooby

The Role of Organic Producers

Under their Climate Smart Agriculture initiative, California offers programs on irrigation efficiency (SWEEP), farmland conservation, manure management, and incentivizing farm practices that store carbon in soil and woody plants (Healthy Soils). Each of these programs, funded in part by the State’s cap and trade program, plays a role in either decreasing the amount of GHG emitted from the agriculture sector or increasing the amount of carbon stored in soil and woody plants.

The Healthy Soils program has been particularly popular among organic growers. In the first year of funding over 25% of applicants were organic producers, when they make up just 3% of the state’s total producers. Jane Sooby, Senior Policy Specialist at CCOF, a non-profit supported by an organic family of farmers, ranchers, processors, retailers, consumers, and policymakers that was founded in California, explains why: “Organic farmers have a special role to play because they are already required to use practices such as crop rotation that contribute to carbon sequestration, and they are rewarded in the marketplace with a premium for organic products.”

State programs like Healthy Soils and SWEEP are a start, but more can be done, suggests Sooby. These programs are competitive, and they can be complicated and time consuming to apply to which makes it difficult for smaller scale producers to access the available resources. Sooby would like to see California provide financial incentives to all farmers who are taking steps to conserve water and reduce GHG emissions.

CCOF has engaged directly with government to make their programs more accessible to organic farmers and ranchers at all scales. What more is needed?

Sooby likens the current climate change crisis to the all-hands-on-deck approach of the World War II effort: “Climate change is of similar, if not more, urgency. Governments need to draw up plans for how to support farmers and ranchers in sequestering as much carbon as possible and helping them transition to clean energy solutions.”

Learn more:
California Dept. of Food and Agriculture – Climate Smart Agriculture programs: cdfa.ca.gov/oefi
Carbon Cycle Institute: carboncycle.org
Climate Beneficial Wool: Fibershed.com
CalCan – California Climate & Agriculture Network: calclimateag.org/climatesmartag


Shauna MacKinnon has been working on food and agriculture issues for well over a decade. From social and economic research to supporting research and extension she has been honoured to work with many great food and farming organizations. She currently coordinates the Farm Adaptation Innovator Program for the BC Food & Agriculture Climate Action Initiative, but has contributed this piece as an independent writer.

Feature image: Implementation of a rotational grazing program on a Marin Carbon Farm. Photo by Dr. Jeff Cheque, Carbon Cycle Institute.

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