Importance of Working Landscapes to California’s Economy and Climate Change

Author: Stephanie Larson and Adam Livingston | Published: September 27, 2017

To accelerate California’s policy leadership in the face of global crises like water scarcity, climate change and uneven economic development between urban and rural areas, it is essential to recognize of the importance of the state’s natural capital, especially in relation to working landscapes and rural economies.

The California Economic Summit defines working landscapes to include farmland, ranches, forest, wetlands, mines, water bodies and other natural resource lands, both private and public. Carbon is the energy currency of most biological systems, including agricultural ecosystems. All agricultural production originates from the process of plant photosynthesis, which uses sunshine to combine carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air with water and minerals from the soil to produce plant material, both above and below ground.

Agriculture is the ONE sector that can transform from a net emitter of CO2 to a net sequestered of CO2.

There is no other human-managed realm with this potential. Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil, grazing, result in the return of CO2 to the air. However, all farming is “carbon farming” because all agricultural production depends upon plant photosynthesis to move carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the plant, where it is transformed into agricultural products, whether food, flora, fuel or fiber.

Agriculture contributes only 9 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the US (EPA); and agricultural landscapes, particularly grassland/rangelands, have great potential to function as a sponge for carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The maximum capacity of soil to store organic carbon is determined by soil type (percent clay); management practices implemented to maximize plant growth and minimize losses of organic carbon from soil can increase organic carbon storage in soil. Keeping working lands “working” can result in long-term carbon storage (decades to centuries or more) in soils.