Monday, December 14, 2009

Agriculture and climate change – Part I

Agriculture (land use) has emerged as a critical issue of discussion and debate here in Copenhagen. There are many reports that speak to the potential impact of climate change on agriculture internationally (such as those published by the FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.; ) or on the regional level (such as the Union of Concerned Scientists report of the impact of climate change on PA; ). Issues range from land use (clearing of forests for increased space to grow food); fossil fuel-based practices in agriculture (for machinery, the production of synthetic agrichemicals, etc.); food vs. (bio)fuel and the rising costs of food worldwide; the GHG contributions of livestock and food transport in a global economy; and the impact of droughts and floods on food production.

Interestingly, in the side events occurring outside of the Bella Center, the issues are much broader and more complex. There is an extremely strong anti-agribusiness sentiment (especially anti-Monsanto). There are serious concerns about the loss of biodiversity and indigenous species used for food for thousands of years due to the overuse of monocultures and genetic engineering. The anti-GMO sentiment here is much fiercer than in the U.S. And, of course, there are reiterations of long running concerns about pollution caused by agriculture. Interestingly, these topics are all being linked to food security and social justice.

On Saturday, I attended a panel at Klimaforum that included Maurice Strong, Vandana Shiva, Patrick Holden, Allen Imai, and Barbara Hachipuka Barda bringing Canadian, Indian, European, Japanese and African (Zambia) voices, respectively, to the issues. Maurice Strong was the Secretary General of the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development and organizer of the Rio Earth Summit. Patrick Holden is Director of the UK Soil Association and an organic dairy farmer. Vandana Shiva should be a familiar name, but if not, you can look her up. It might suffice to say that Time Magazine has called her a “Hero for the Planet”. The other individuals are trying to organize and revitalize community-based, organic and sustainable agricultural practices in their countries and beyond.

The familiar talking points: Grow organic and support local farmers. Eat less meat.

Probably less familiar talking points unless you follow this topic:
1) Using indigenous seeds enhances biodiversity and produces crop plants that are better able to survive weather extremes. This will reduce total crop loss in years of drought or flooding, and, by association, be important for adapting to climate change.
2) It takes 10 fossil fuel energy units to produce 1 energy unit of food; and it takes 10 food units to get 1 unit of animal protein. (And this doesn’t take into account the massive amounts of water needed as discussed by Fred Pearce when he visited MC.) Reportedly, in addition to all the other benefits of organic methods (including increased water retention in the soil, better tasting and healthier foods, and increased carbon sequestration in the soil), organic practices are more energy efficient yielding 2 to 3 units of food energy for every unit of energy put into the system.
3) Large scale agriculture and farm subsidies have led to the impoverishment of the small scale food producers. According to Dr. Shiva, there are 1 billion people in the world without sufficient food and ½ of these are food producers. Instead of taking what they need to feed their families and then selling off the excess, they sell all the food to try to pay of their debt. (You don’t have to go to developing countries to see this; statistics on the demise of the family farm in the U.S. are pretty staggering.) In India over the past decade, 1 million farmers have given up farming and 200,000 of these farmers have committed suicide. The rest are poor and headed to the urban areas.
4) India’s government recently spent $30 billion to subsidize chemical fertilizers. Dr. Shiva pondered how better spent this money could have been if applied to climate mitigation and adaptation. She had very strong criticism about the heavy use of pollutants and toxins in farming and the nasty practices that go on in the “food” industry that now uses the same starting material for furniture, clothing, industrial products and extruded things labeled as food! She blames the industry for the 2 billion people who are sick due to unsafe food – including diabetics.
5) In Japan, 96% of the population depends on only 4% of the population to grow their food (and imports). Of this small percentage, the majority are over 65 years of age. Allen Imai is working in a number of countries to retain traditional practices and crops and to encourage young people in his country to go into farming as an honorable profession.
6) The desire to move to the city for jobs (that don’t exist) is also prevalent in much of Africa so groups like the Mbabala Women Farmers Cooperative Union are working to promote sustainable, community-based practices using traditional crops, seed saving, etc.

As much as I support the organic and local food movements, I simply can’t see how we can return to a state where these small farms and environmentally friendly practices can produce enough food to feed a world that is heading toward 9 billion people. It would require a rebalancing of the urban/rural population balance to start. Just imagine about ½ of the population of Manhattan moving out of the city and starting their own small farms!

The call for Food Democracy is loud and clear here and I am intrigued by the concept of paying small farmers as “carbon stewards”.

Later I will post on the GMO food issues (including my personal struggle with this topic) and the “Manifesto on Climate Change and the Future of Food Security” published by the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture.


  1. Diane, thanks for the great summary! I have been attending many sustainable agriculture events over the past three days and have pages of notes to post. Before that, a quick comment to your post...

    I agree that the thought of reversing our dependence on the current industrial agriculture system seems daunting and somewhat unrealistic. An interesting comment that came up during a session today was that one way the public can really make an impact is changing their diets (namely those who follow the 'Westernized' diet).

    Clearly the US alone faces major health issues with diabetes, obesity, cancer etc. I have no statistics to support this (a great project for a student, I think) but I am wondering if the current demand for food from developed nations is reduced or at least redirected to locally sustainable food systems if the developing countries could focus more on feeding their own people using their own land (without further degrading it).

    Food for thought, I suppose.

  2. Wonderful summary of the ag. issues! For a different view re. the productivity of organic agriculture versus "conventional farming," see Rodale Institute's 2008 report, The Organic Green Revolution by scientists LaSalle, Hepperly, and Diop: From the report: "Not only can organic agriculture feed the world,according to the UN Environment Programme(UNEP)in a report released in October,it may be the only way we can solve the growing problem of hunger in developing countries." The 16-page report cites numerous recent studies, including comparisons at UC Davis and the Institute's own long-term farming systems trial.