Monday, December 14, 2009

Agriculture: A cause of, a victim of, and a solution for climate change all at once?

Over the past three days, I have attended a number of sessions related to agriculture. If you haven't noticed by now, I am slightly passionate about this topic area! One (probably paraphrased) quote I heard this weekend from Vandana Shiva well describes my passion: 'Our duty to our bodies tells us we have got to take control of our food system'.

I recognize that 'taking control of our food system' isn't an easy task and like all the other issues being discussed in Copenhagen it is an issue that has many sides, much complexity, and no easy solution. Nonetheless, without reiterating Diane's fabulous overview of the issues below, I have tried to capture some major themes that I think we (meaning any consumer of food) can reflect upon and identify ways to put them into actionable solutions in our daily lives.

THEME 1: As my title insinuates, it's become very clear that our current agriculture system can be described as both a cause and victim of, as well as a solution for, climate change. My previous post spoke about one reason it's a cause (the emission of nitrous oxide) and there are many others (e.g., deforestation). Agriculture also is a victim of climate change as evident in the fact that regions previously able to abundantly produce crops and livestock are now facing droughts or floods that have severely damanged or completely destroyed their ability to farm. And most exciting to me is the idea of agriculture as a solution to climate change through sustainable practices that concurrently emit less pollutants and sequester carbon (e.g., plants "absorb" CO2 through natural processes).

THEME 2. Agriculture is intertwined with every other major issue on our national and global agendas - Health, Security, Economy, Human Rights. The list goes on, but a few thoughts on some of these issues.

Health: Clearly there are health problems all over the world. In the developed nations, we face many diseases related to obesity. In developing nations, they face many diseases related to hunger. I am not educated enough to talk about developing nations or even developed nations outside of the U.S., so I will focus on the United States. Our current food system is very far removed from actually creating nutrious food. Despite how well fed most of our nation is today, many of our children are malnurioushed. Why is that? Something I believed before COP and have heard as a theme here is that our system is focused on producing commodities, not food. Until we get back to the idea of food coming directly from farm to table, we may continue to face major health problems. Another quote from VS: 'Food can only come from the soil - we're being forced to eat things we shouldn't be eating'.

Security: This topic was discussed in every session I attended but a session hosted by the International Federation of Agriculture Producers (IFAP) really struck the point home. The world's population is growing a rate that will require to double the amount of food produced by 2050. This is where Diane's point is extremely relevant - how we can go back to "traditional" ways of farming while ensuring that our growing population is fed? What will this mean for national security as food becomes a scarce resource for even the most wealthy nations as climate change impacts our ability to produce food and land is used to produce "food" for other reasons (e.g., biofuels)? The IFAP offered a strong position that our goal must be to help farmers adapt to what has already been impacted by climate change through a combination of sustainable practices and leading research on "climate resistent" practices.

Economy: Due to many of the reasons I stated above, "cheap" food is coming to an end (emphasized by the IFAP); however, VS pointed out some trickery that offers some promise. Again....paraphrased: 'because industrialized agriculture is so highly subsidized "expensive food" (industrialized food commodities) looks cheap and "inexpensive food" (ecologically produced food)looks expensive'. There are many other economical issues at play, but too much to discuss here.

One final thought or THEME 3. Climate change is a symptom of a much larger problem. There could be many ways to define the root problem, but my own opinion is what I heard someone to refer to as an "ecological literacy" problem. I recognize that there are so many issues to know and read about, but as the past few days have shown me agriculture is related to many of them! Learning about agriculture makes you learn about many other issues and how they are all interconnected.

What does this mean for us? Another great (paraphrased) quote from Vandana Shiva, 'the 21st century should be the time we once again celebrate the soil' - while slightly poetic or idyllic it speaks to what we can do. We can become aware of how our food is produced and put our money where our mouth is (pun intended) by supporting the mechanisms that will make agriculture fully a solution, rather than a cause of, climate change. As a start, support your local farmers by joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm near you! A small, but important first step.

If you have made it to this point and read my entire post, I congratulate you. Please post thoughts - I'm interested in hearing other's opinions!

1 comment:

  1. Jaime -

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

    I agree that the impacts of food on health, security, economics, and the ecosystem are critical.

    In addition to lack of nutrients in industrial food, there is also the problem of the pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, and other additives used in the industrialized food system -- you might be interested in a research paper completed this semester by Moravian student Codi Gauker [available on the Alliance's website] and the Healthy Food in Health Care pledge [available at].

    In addition to its security benefits, relocalization will increase resilience to both climate change and other threats to the food supply, while increasing biodiversity.

    Economically, the commodity-driven industrialized food system has also destroyed the economic livelihood of small farmers everywhere. Buying local is a big plus for the local economy, and Fair Trade certification helps insure that our food is not produced at the expense of poor people in other areas.

    I also think you are right to focus on eco-literacy. Agriculture is a key factor affecting our ecosystem. Instead of getting more calories from food than we expend in getting it, our current system expends an estimated 17 calories for every calorie gained -- another result of the cheap and destructive energy provided by petroleum. Now that we have reached Peak Oil, all this must change.

    Of course, one of the key principles of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. You can start with agriculture, health, energy, biodiversity or any other key component any if you go deep enough, you'll be dealing with the others as well.

    Peter Crownfield
    Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley