Agriculture has been a major driver of human-caused climate change, responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, it’s also extremely vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures. But a new report says agricultural innovations can result in climate-friendly food production.
Droughts, floods, severe storms and unpredictable weather patterns have all been blamed on climate change. The Worldwatch Institute says the events not only “affect people’s daily routines, but disrupt life-sustaining agriculture.”
In 2012, the Midwestern United States breadbasket suffered record heat and severe drought. Super storm Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern U.S. In 2011, severe drought worsened a humanitarian crisis in Somalia. In 2010, Russian wheat farmers experienced their worst drought in more than a hundred years. The list goes on.
What’s more, the report says the “challenges are expected to grow more pervasive in the future.”
Danielle Nierenberg is co-founder of the research group Food Tank and former director of Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet Project. The co-author of the report - Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture - said agriculture currently contributes to climate change in many ways.
“Because industrial agriculture tends to be very resource intensive, uses a lot of fossil fuels, it’s a huge contributor to climate change. Anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the agriculture sector. If you look at all the ingredients that really go into making food – fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotic use, transportation, processing facilities – all those things are very dependent on fossil fuels,” she said.
Livestock, in particular, has a major effect on the environment.
“Because meat consumption is growing, particularly in places like Brazil and China and India the market is responding. There are more industrial animal facilities or factory farms that are cropping up in places in the developing world. And those factories really require a lot of fossil fuel inputs. They require long distance transportation. So, all those things can contribute to climate change,” she said.
The report says that agriculture can adapt to these challenges. At the same time it can reduce its environmental footprint and meet the food needs of a growing population.
It outlines – what it calls – six sustainable approaches to land and water use. Nierenberg says they can help food producers adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects, as well.
These include agroforestry or growing trees on farmland to reduce erosion, remove carbon dioxide from the air and keep soil healthier. The trees also provide shade for livestock and create wildlife habitats.
Planting cover crops, the report says, can make soil less vulnerable to drought, heat and pests. Urban farming is another recommendation.
“Growing more food in cities can reduce transportation costs. So, urban residents can buy very locally from rooftops or backyards in their communities. So you’re reducing transportation. You’re making a city more green and helping sequester carbon so that it’s not just a concrete jungle, but a place that really supports food production,” Nierenberg said.
There are also innovations in water conservation, such as recycling wastewater in cities, drip irrigation and catching and storing rainwater. Nierenberg says it’s also better to use indigenous crops and livestock that are adapted to particular climates.
“These are breeds that are very resistant to high temperatures or very resistant to diseases that occur when temperatures rise. For live stock, in particular, well meaning missionaries have been trying to encourage pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere to adopt more exotic, higher producing breeds of livestock for many years. And while those breeds can produce a lot more meat or more milk, they often become too expensive for traditional breeders or traditional pastoralists to raise because they get sick very easily. They need a lot more water. They need a lot more food,” she said.
Nierenberg said that over the next 50 years, African farmers have the ability to sequester or trap 50 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere. She says while all the recommendations are practical, there are obstacles to putting them into practice.
“Funders and donors and development agencies and NGOs tend not to recognize the importance of things already working on the ground. It’s often easier to get funding for some sexy new technology rather than investing in things that have been working for decades or in some cases even centuries,” she said.
The Worldwatch Institute report warns that “climate change will clearly have dramatic impacts on the agricultural sector and on global food production. It adds that “techniques that can help food producers mitigate or adapt to climate change will enable farmers and consumers to better survive an era of unpredictable weather patterns and a steadily warming climate.”