Healthy, Climate Resilient Farms for A Healthy U.S.

by Jennifer Miller, PhD

ImageHealthy, sustainable farms are the bedrock of a stable food supply, which in turn is the cornerstone of good nutrition and good health. Climate variability puts a tremendous strain on farms. Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a set of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) measures to help American farmers grapple with climate change. “Our farmers and ranchers” he said, “are on the front lines of identifying threats [to our food production] and adapting to meet them.” Vilsack cited the dangers to crops posed by drought, storms and flooding, changing temperatures, and increased pests. He added that the agriculture sector has an important role to play, as well, in preventing climate change.

To help with all of this, the USDA is establishing regional hubs that will guide farmers on using climate-resilient techniques, and it has developed an online tool that will measure the contributions farms make to capturing carbon. Tools and support to help farmers tackle the challenges of climate change are not only good for agriculture, they’re good for our health.

When climate change reduces crop yields and makes healthy food less affordable or even unavailable, people suffer. In other parts of the world we’ve already seen climate-related hunger, with more projected; and while U.S. families have not yet felt the pinch, this could quickly change. Helping farmers in the U.S. to implement climate resilient farming practices will be essential to securing our food supply in the face of increasing climate variability.

At the same time, U.S. agriculture currently contributes 8% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, farms and forests offer important opportunities to both capture carbon and reduce emissions. Such efforts would offer immediate co-benefits to health. For example, in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, local geography combines with agricultural emissions to contribute to some of the worst air quality in the country. Reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions immediately improves health by giving everyone in the region cleaner air to breathe, while improving health prospects in the long term by mitigating climate change.

Because the connection between the food system and health is a powerful one, the Public Health Institute has been working for years to improve food systems in ways both large and small. From projects that have created community gardens so that neighbors can grow their own fresh produce, to recurring Farm Bill advocacy to protect nutrition programs and support healthy farms, to research and advocacy on climate change, agriculture and nutrition, PHI has recognized that healthy, equitable, climate resilient farms are essential for a healthy, equitable and climate resilient nation.

Some of PHI’s work on agriculture and health, and on climate change, agriculture and health:

As part of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition, PHI works on policy change to promote health, while strengthening the economic and environmental viability of the food and agricultural sectors. Our 2011 paper Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity? Dispelling Common Myths about Public Health and the Farm Bill, co-authored with Food & Water Watch, reviews the economic and policy literature to challenge the truism that farm subsidies have contributed to the obesity epidemic. The paper concludes with recommendations for reforming farm policies in ways that strengthen and stabilize prices and farm incomes while also expanding access to healthy, affordable produce.

PHI’s Community Food and Justice Coalition works to improve food systems, increase food system equity, and address the impact of climate change on agriculture. CFJC frequently partners with CalCAN (the California Climate & Agriculture Network), on issues related to strengthening food system resilience, and fostering climate change mitigation in the agriculture sector.

Our fact sheet, Sustainable Food Systems: Benefits for Climate Change and Health, maps out the links among food systems, climate change and health, and tells how to get involved in creating sustainable food systems.

Our policy brief, Food and Nutrition Security, Health and Gender Equality: Partnerships for climate-resilient sustainable development, co-authored with the World Health Organization and others, focuses on the role that women play in securing food systems, protecting nutrition and addressing climate change in some of the most climate-impacted agricultural zones in the world. See also PHI’s Enhancing Women’s Leadership to Address the Challenges of Climate Change on Nutrition Security and Health.

Through its Healthy Eating, Active Communities program, PHI worked to make fresh, locally grown produce available in communities, working with farmers like Johanna Trenerry (video) in Shasta County, California.

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