The Newsom administration has released a series of climate plans that are opening new conversations about the government’s role in reducing the use of conventional pesticides to lower emissions while ramping up organic farming to capture more atmospheric carbon within the soil.

The Air Resources Board (CARB) is spearheading the latest effort with an update to the state’s seminal climate policy, the AB 32 Climate Scoping Plan. CARB has drafted four possible modeling scenarios for including natural and working lands within the plan.

Agricultural trade groups responding to the early framework appreciated that the agency is proposing targets rather than setting limits for policies that impact the industry, and that it has resisted calls from environmental groups to limit the use of pesticides.

“Crop protection tools—those made by man and those made by nature—help farmers and ranchers meet the global demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel,” argued a coalition of agricultural groups led by the California Farm Bureau, in a joint letter to CARB. “CARB has noted on several occasions that the chemicals in agriculturally used pesticides are not identified within the scope of the act and for some, such as nitrous oxide, research is insufficient to positively identify the resulting impacts.”

The groups were pushing back on a petition from a coalition of environmental justice groups led by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), which urged CARB to further study methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the industry, particularly in livestock production, to include in the scenario modeling. The environmental groups also called for a full lifecycle analysis of fumigants and their potential public health impacts.

In separate comments, Dani Diele, a policy advocate for the Agricultural Council of California, reasoned that crop protection tools help farmers protect the global food supply from pests and disease while reducing waste, maximizing yields and improving efficiency. She noted that pesticides were not within the original scope of the AB 32 legislation.

Two of the scenarios within the draft report propose to increase organic production. While the farm groups acknowledge that some of the soil management and farming practices included within the organic certification can help boost soil carbon sequestration, “it is not the role of the state to pick winners and losers” and the practices “are not the exclusive domain of organic producers, with many conventional farmers incorporating them into their operations.”

Aubrey BettencourtAlmond Alliance President Aubrey Bettencourt

The tradeoff, they argue, is that boosting organic production can lead to lower yields, requiring a higher market price and more land, water, labor and equipment, which increases emissions by moving food production out of state—an unintended effect known as leakage. The groups also worry that artificially subsidizing the organic market would grant a competitive advantage to new producers while hurting the state’s existing operations. The oversupply would reduce the price premium while increasing production costs, disincentivizing farmers to transition away from conventional farming and adding more barriers to entry for new or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

“It can also mean needing to apply an organically acceptable pesticide four to five times instead of one application of a more effective conventional pesticide,” writes Aubrey Bettencourt, president of the Almond Alliance of California, in a letter to CARB. “This also results in three to five more tractor runs to control insects or weeds.”

Diele encouraged the state to allow organic agriculture to increase organically, which has roughly averaged a 3% increase in per-acre adoption each year. California leads the nation in organic production, accounting for 40% of the total U.S. share in 2018, according to CDFA. Sales that year totaled more than $10 billion, growing by 29% from the previous year.

Environmental groups would like to see those numbers rise exponentially. The PANNA coalition is pushing CARB to adopt the European Union’s Farm-to-Fork Strategy and set a target of slashing synthetic pesticide use in half by 2030.

“Industrial agriculture threatens the health of communities through water and air contamination and the overuse of chemical inputs like pesticides,” they argue. “Given the historical inequities and environmental injustices created by industrial agriculture, it’s critical that public health and equity outcomes be considered not only for all scenarios, but for all proposed management strategies.”

They call for a stronger focus on organic agriculture and agroecology. The groups encourage CARB to examine the potential benefits of converting 30% of California agricultural production to organic by 2030.

“Diversified organic agriculture is associated with multiple conservation benefits, including increased biodiversity, enhanced ecosystem services, improved soil health, and decreased water pollution,” they write, adding that this would help to achieve maximum climate, conservation and public health benefits.

The groups also oppose any carbon credits, offsets or other market benefits for producers who adopt climate-smart practices, arguing the cap-and-trade approach can de-emphasize the need to reduce fossil fuel use.

“California's efforts in dealing with agriculture's necessary role in emissions reduction and carbon sequestration have thus far been limited to a handful of incentive programs to varying degrees of success,” said Colin Miller, a policy advocate for the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, during a recent stakeholder workshop on the Scoping Plan update. “False solutions—such as dairy digesters, carbon capture utilization and storage, flood market mechanisms and offset schemes—distract time, resources, energy and funding from seeking the real and intersectional solutions that will prioritize people over industries.”

Miller encouraged CARB to support a broad move toward agroecology. Along with reducing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the movement encourages cover cropping, reducing tillage, increasing crop diversity, transitioning away from confined animal feeding operations toward managed grazing, and integrating crop and livestock within one system, he explained.

Jeanne Merrill, policy director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network, was glad to see organic agriculture within the scenarios but was worried about the ongoing loss of farmland to development in California. Staff assured Merrill the Scoping Plan update will take into account land use changes, likely by incorporating research from California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment.

The California Farm Bureau coalition notes in its comments that urban sprawl has led to more than a million acres of farmland being permanently removed from agriculture. Those lands are often owned or managed by small or socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

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But agreement among the parties has been rare. The farm groups, for instance, disagree with CARB’s focus on biodiversity within the Scoping Plan update.

“Some practices proposed to encourage climate resilience have the added benefit of promoting biodiversity, such as planting hedgerows, pollinator-friendly cover crops or composting,” they argue. “Importantly though, biodiversity is achieved as a cobenefit of these practices, not the primary objective.”

The coalition and the Ag Council worried about setting long-term plans around an industry currently in flux.

“Acreage of any commodity or any type has never remained linear or static. Land, water, employees, processing and markets influence the choices a farmer or rancher has available,” they argue. “All of these are in critical short supply right now, and it is impossible to predict what the future holds.”

They point out that farmers are often hesitant to adopt climate-smart practices under drought conditions and encouraged the administration to address water infrastructure needs to accelerate the full-scale adoption of these practices.

“California’s farmers and ranchers live on the frontlines of climate change impacts in their daily lives and livelihoods, experiencing worsening drought, wildfires, diminishing soils, pest proliferation and severe weather events,” reports the farm coalition. “These climate-driven challenges are compounded by increased regulation, greater competition, changing consumer preferences and labor shortages.”

Along those lines, the Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) in October issued a draft report for adapting the state to climate extremes. Among the many action items the administration is pursuing are goals for reducing pesticide use. Success will be measured by the amount of reduction in pounds and acres treated with specific pesticides over the next five years. To support this effort, the report calls for more funding into research for alternative practices and for technical assistance.

Also in October, the agency released a draft report of its climate-smart strategy for natural and working lands. Among the solutions it offers is partnering with the Department of Pesticide Regulation to encourage and assist growers and other applicators “to adopt promising and proven reduced-risk alternatives to conventional pest management practices.”

The following month, CDFA summarized in a report the feedback the department had gathered for developing farmer- and rancher-led climate solutions. While CDFA has not proposed any specific actions, many of the pesticide concerns listed within the report echoed the Scoping Plan comments.

In December, CNRA outlined the administration’s objectives for its new 30x30 commitment, which seeks to conserve 30% of the state’s land and coastal waters by 2030. While Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to an organic farm to sign his executive order in 2020, the 73-page draft document does not mention organic agriculture or pesticides, though the agency is still taking comments through February 15 for revising the plan.

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