CDFA Secretary Karen Ross recently returned from the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where she talked about California’s climate-smart ag programs and met with counterparts from around the world. She spoke with Agri-Pulse about her impressions.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

At COP26, what interest was there in California’s climate-smart ag efforts?

I spoke two different times on methane. I spoke on Healthy Soils at an event sponsored by the French initiative “4 per 1000,” which California Department of Food and Ag has been a member of. And I spoke at a session on nature and biodiversity where I was afraid I’d be a fish out of water, but it was really a great conversation. The organizers were really glad to have somebody from ag.

California is ahead of United States federal policy on some climate matters, so that puts California officials in a particular light at an international meeting. On the other hand, sometimes agriculture gets blamed for certain things at climate talks. How was it being a person who is in both of those worlds?

In all of the sessions where I was part of a panel, or talking about what we are doing in California, we were the ones that have a plan, are making investment, and are taking action. We're implementing things and that did stand out — that we are in the doing phase. In a sidebar session on healthy soils, the number of new member countries and governments and, now, companies that were there, trying to achieve their own targets on healthy soils, just showed me how much there is for us to be able to learn and network from others. For the folks who organized the session on nature and biodiversity, I'm not sure that they have been thinking about farmers and ranchers on the landscape as being equally engaged in the kind of stewardship that that they're looking for. I felt like it really caught their attention.

Were there other things California is doing that seemed to especially be of interest to people from certain countries or parts of the world? 

I did get a chance to do a very brief farm tour outside of Glasgow. The farmer’s concern there is, we're about producing food, and doing it in an environmentally sustainable way. And it feels like the government wants us to be about doing environmental practices, and also producing food. So that's just one of my observations from the UK, because they're going through change post-Brexit. The water session that I was in had several folks from Africa. I did not see that much from South America, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there. Mexico was very, very active. Canada was very active.

Are there policies or strategies or ideas that you heard about that are things you've now got in the back of your mind that maybe will bubble up at some point to be relevant here?

Certainly, I came home reenergized and reinspired because it feels like we're definitely on the right track. And, of course, we all want to do more faster. I’m thinking about what the next big curve ahead is. Some of it is this continued work on maximizing carbon sequestration. We're creating our soil carbon maps. Some countries have picked up on the FAO soil carbon sequestration potential maps, but there is a lot of uncertainty in that. It made me start thinking about, do we have enough to be able to map how we maximize carbon sequestration where we are? We're very focused right now on above-ground plants and woody biomass that can draw down carbon. There's still so much to learn about our roots and the deeper-rooted plants and what that can mean for soil sequestration. So that's kind of where my mind went. I'm excited to see the discussion on investment. Obviously, there were many who were disappointed, they wanted more pledges financially. I looked at how much money was pledged and I think that was pretty astounding.

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What's a program or policy or action that you heard about someplace else in the world that you imagine might have a role in California someday?

I keep going back to soil health. In Japan, what they were doing for their woody biomass, for their trees and for their vine crops, is biochar. That's not a new idea. We continue to look at it but there is not quantifiable data at this point on rates and what the actual soil carbon sequestration benefits are. That's a challenging one to measure. There was a lot of conversation that I heard about fertilizers, the importance of good stewardship, good education about right amount, right placement, right timing. And also how to minimize emissions from fertilizer applications.

What will you look forward to at the next COP you attend?

Planning in advance so I can meet even more people in person for one-on-ones, even if it's only half an hour. For me, it would have been very helpful to meet with colleagues from more Mediterranean climates that have some of the same crops we have. In addition to being on panels, being able to better identify in advance which sessions I really, really want to be an observer at and learn from.

Any other takeaways?

People were very excited to know that we already have our Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy out for public comment. They were very interested to know that as part of that the governor's directed us to develop our 30 x 30 plan, which won't be out for a while. That got a lot of conversation in many different forums I was attending and technical assistance and capacity building were major themes in all of those sessions.

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