In summary

Our chemically-dependent approach to agriculture is at the core of many problems such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity.

By Steve Shimek, Special to CalMatters

Steve Shimek is the chief executive of The Otter Project, exec@otterproject.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

As a biologist and environmental advocate, even before the pandemic, I was scared by the headlines about our planet:  A 75% decline in insect biomass with a 40% loss of insect species predicted; a United Nations warning of the imminent extinction of 1 million species worldwide; a 3 billion loss of birds in United States and Canada over the past half-century; the growth of dead zones on our coasts and the decline in the oxygen held by the world’s oceans.  Climate change will only worsen these environmental problems. 

Then COVID-19 blazed around the globe.  

As we emerge from this pandemic, we have a critical opportunity to address multiple, interrelated threats to our future.  

Climate change, pandemics and the loss of biodiversity are not just occurring at the same time.  New science is revealing how they may be interrelated.  Our current chemically-dependent approach to agriculture is at the core of many of these problems.   Increasingly, chemically intensive agriculture is characterized by field after laser-leveled field of sterile monoculture without bugs, birds, rabbits, deer and other wildlife.  

In 2013, a National Geographic article concluded: “Runaway nitrogen (fertilizer) is suffocating wildlife in lakes and estuaries, contaminating groundwater, and even warming the globe’s climate.”

The scientific effort predicting a 40% loss of insect species concluded: “The main drivers of species declines appear to be in order of importance: i) habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization; ii) pollution, mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.”  In turn, this insect loss is a major factor in the loss of billions of North American birds.

The study about plummeting ocean oxygen levels states: “Nutrient run-off from agriculture and from both treated and untreated sewage effluent are major contributors to oxygen depletion in coastal waters, driving the over-enrichment of waters with nutrients.”  

Unsurprisingly, given all of this, agriculture is also cited by the United Nations Foundation as a major factor in the extinction risk facing 1 million species.

The overarching challenge is that we cannot live without nature and we cannot live without food.  

The recovery from the COVID shutdown gives us a rare opportunity to rethink our relationship with the global ecosystems on which we depend.  Like so many others, I long for a return to normalcy.  But that’s not what we need.  We must come out of this pandemic looking to address other looming crises.   Our unsustainable agricultural system, along with climate change, are at the top of the list.  

California has an opportunity to become a model for a sustainable approach to agriculture that can coexist with healthy natural and human communities.  The Golden State leads the nation in farm receipts.  California farmers grow hundreds of crops and are the most educated and innovative in the world.  For those hoping farmers can make the transition to a healthy, modern agriculture – this is the place to start.

Currently, modern farming is a fight against nature.  Creeks and wetlands are filled to maximize farmed land.  Pesticides and fertilizers are overapplied, harming neighboring communities, ecosystems and wildlife.  Studies on California’s Central Coast found that fertilizers are commonly applied two to five times the amount used by the crop.  The excess runs off into groundwater and rivers – then into the ocean.

California’s diverse agricultural industry includes innovative farmers who have shown how to reduce use of the most toxic chemicals, transition to less toxic approaches like pheromones instead of pesticides, protect and restore habitat to absorb excess runoff – and much more.  The question is, what practical steps can we take to ensure these approaches are applied broadly?  

Unlike America’s Clean Water Act, which exempts irrigated agriculture, California law applies to all pollution.  This is critical, because agriculture is the dominant source of water pollution in the state.  But despite the law, California’s water boards have failed to adopt a single limit on the over-application of chemicals or on the resulting pollution.  

California’s water boards are currently developing new regulations for agriculture.  It is not an exaggeration to say that our planet, the pollinators we rely on and a million species are on a precipice.  

California has the strongest and most innovative agricultural economy in the world.  We can lead the world toward a more sustainable future.  That starts with California’s water boards enforcing California law.

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Steve Shimek is the chief executive of The Otter Project, exec@otterproject.org. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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