rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Feeding humanity in a warming world

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Calculating farming's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is difficult, but experts agree that feeding the world's people has tremendous climate and environmental impacts. Estimates of global emissions from farms range widely. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts them at 24 per cent, including deforestation, making agriculture the second-largest emitter after heat and electricity.

Agriculture contributes to global warming in a number of ways. Methane and nitrous oxide, which are more potent than CO2 but remain in the atmosphere for shorter times, make up about 65 per cent of agricultural emissions. Methane comes mainly from cattle and nitrous oxide from fertilizers and wastes.

According to the World Resources Institute, "Smaller sources include manure management, rice cultivation, field burning of crop residues, and fuel use on farms." Net emissions are also created when forests and wetlands are cleared for farming, as these "carbon sinks" usually absorb and store more carbon than the farms that replace them. Transporting and processing agricultural products also contribute to global warming.

We need to eat. So what's the answer? That obesity is epidemic in parts of the world while people starve elsewhere, and that an estimated one-third of food gets wasted, shows improving distribution and reducing waste are good places to start -- but won’t be enough to significantly curtail agriculture's contribution to climate change.

Reducing meat and animal-product consumption and production -- especially beef -- would cut emissions, but wouldn't get us all the way.

Some suggest finding better ways to feed as many as nine billion people by 2050 means rethinking our agricultural systems. Industrial agriculture has made it possible to produce large amounts of food efficiently, but comes with problems, including pollution, reduced biodiversity, pesticide resistance and consequent increased chemical use, destruction of forests and wetlands, and human health issues such as antibiotic resistance. Soil loss and degradation, increased drought and flooding and changing growing patterns caused by climate change add to the complexity.

Some say the best fix is genetic modification -- to produce more nutritious plants that can withstand pests and a changing climate. Others note that when humans try to improve on or override nature, the outcome is often not what was expected.

And a U.S. National Academies of Science report concludes, "GMO crops have not, to date, increased actual yields." Failing to recognize that everything in nature is interconnected has led to numerous unintended consequences, from DDT causing bird deaths and toxic buildup in the food chain to widespread antibiotic use facilitating the evolution of "superbugs."

The growing field of agroecology -- working with nature -- is one solution. Many researchers argue it's more efficient, less environmentally damaging and more equitable for farmers and local communities than industrial methods and GMOs.

The goal, writes University of California-Berkeley agroecology professor Miguel Altieri, "is to design an agroecosystem that mimics the structure and function of local natural ecosystems; that is, a system with high species diversity and a biologically active soil, one that promotes natural pest control, nutrient recycling and high soil cover to prevent resource losses."

A study by the Rodale Institute, a research organization devoted to organic farming, concluded global adoption of agroecological practices such as "cover crops, compost, crop rotation and reduced tillage" could "sequester more carbon than is currently emitted."

About 40 per cent of Earth's land surface is used for agriculture, entailing massive geophysical alteration, so working with nature as much as possible to maintain or restore balance to natural systems makes sense. Agroecology appears to be a better way to feed humanity than doubling down on industrial agricultural, from many angles: reducing pollution and chemical use, enhancing rather than degrading soils, increasing biodiversity, protecting water, growing healthier food and creating more equitable food systems.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein quotes former UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter: "Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live -- especially in unfavourable environments."

He further notes, "agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80 per cent in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116 per cent for all African projects.”

We are part of nature, so harming it hurts us. The planet provides resources to feed us. We must learn to use them sustainably.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.