How can land grant universities lead on carbon removal?

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By Rory Jacobson & Daniel L. Sanchez

The Cooperative Extension System has supported U.S. agriculture through some of the worst trials of the twentieth century — and very, very few people have heard of it.

You can trace its history back to the Soil Erosions Service, a government agency established in the 1930s to respond to a growing awareness of the detrimental impact of soil erosion. (This problem culminated in a little something called the Dust Bowl.) Even before this, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 made land grant universities conduits for sending agricultural experts into the field to translate academic findings into applied management decisions.

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An Extension Expert shows off the roots of a mung bean in a soil health demonstration field in North Carolina (1923). Photo: NC State University Libraries

Today, the Cooperative Extension System continues to provide the same vital service, but the nature of its role has evolved in response to the changing needs of land managers across the country. With U.S. farmers struggling to adapt to the impacts of climate change, the need for an adaptive support system like the Cooperative Extension is clearer than ever, yet the role the Service should serve in mitigating climate change has not been well developed.

Recently, Carbon180 advisory board member and Cooperative Extension Specialist, Dr. Daniel Sanchez led the publication of an article in California Agriculture assessing the opportunity for University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) experts to lead on carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The outreach, education, and deployment work of UCCE and other UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) experts on CDR is unquestionably praiseworthy. If the work of UC ANR can rapidly scale and spread both within the state and across the country, Cooperative Extension could become a primary driver for CDR deployment. Fortunately, we are confident that UC ANR has what it takes to accomplish this.

Why California?

Though Cooperative Extension began in Arkansas and continues to operate across the country, there are several reasons UCCE and the broader UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources are uniquely well positioned to lead CDR research and deployment. Alongside UCCE, the Agricultural Experiment Station (AES) at UC Davis serves as a premier hub for collaborative research with over 750 scientists and 1,300 projects. As Sanchez et al observe, UCCE staff and AES faculty have exceptional expertise on a number of topics relevant to CDR, included conservation, forestry, soil health, and wood products.

As part of their regular operations, these staff and faculty also liaise with California’s land managers and rural communities, working through the state to disseminate their findings and improve the sustainability and prosperity of managed lands. This on top of the state’s cutting edge climate policy landscape and UC’s leading research community makes UCCE and AES staff well-equipped to rapidly deploy the latest in CDR research.

But in order to tackle the climate challenge ahead, land-use carbon removal will need to scale quickly and efficiently. Fortunately, UCCE has over a century of experience helping ranchers, farmers, and land managers understand and implement the newest and most effective technologies. As breakthrough research on CDR occurs across the UC campuses, UCCE staff can quickly disseminate these findings to a variety of stakeholders, including resource managers, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and companies. By effectively interfacing across these stakeholder groups, UCCE staff can improve policy and technology, while also streamlining the implementation of CDR strategies in the field.

Can UC the Potential?

It will take significant, coordinated efforts across the state to transition agriculture from being a source of 8% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions to a carbon-removing industry. Still, for some time now UCCE staff and faculty have recognized their unique potential and launched several initiatives to support CDR alongside the state’s management and production goals. The diversity and transdisciplinary nature of these programs demonstrates not only UCCE’s extraordinary capacity to perform research but also to serve as education and outreach ambassadors for CDR.

Here’s what they’ve accomplished so far:

  • C4S Working Lands Innovation Center — Catalyzing Negative Carbon Emissions: A Center located at UC Davis intended to scale land-use carbon removal by researching a combination of soil amendments, including compost, pulverized rock, and biochar. This project will increase understanding of the mechanisms and potential for carbon sequestration in soil with the objective of developing a model to optimize deployment across the entire state. Partners include UC Davis, UC Berkeley, CSU East Bay, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, USDA, and UCCE. The Working Lands Innovation Center was developed by the California Collaborative for Climate Change Solutions (C4S) through a recently awarded $4.7 million grant provided by the California Strategic Growth Council.

But a few niche distributed programs won’t be sufficient to help rural America prepare for, let alone mitigate, the future impacts of climate change. Moving forward, UCCE can and should continue to fill this unique role in state-sponsored research and demonstration programs, but other branches of the Cooperative Extension Service will need to implement and iterate on the strategies of UC ANR.

As the primary federal funder and partner of the Cooperative Extension Service, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) can take learnings from UC ANR and dramatically scale these efforts. By providing grants and curriculum explicitly aimed to support CDR research and demonstration to Cooperative Extension branches across the country, lessons from UC ANR’s early leadership can be expanded and improved.

Like the Dust Bowl, climate change will impact nearly all agricultural lands in the United States. Without the support of Cooperative Extension Service branches around the country, many farmers and land managers will be unable to adapt to or help mitigate catastrophic climate change. Luckily, UC ANR’s early leadership on CDR and the deep relational knowledge of Cooperative Extension give us good reason to be optimistic.

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