At the Paris Climate Conference, Leaders Overlook Sustainable Ag
December 10, 2015 | Rose Egelhoff
Global warming brings to mind images of gas-guzzling cars and puffing factory smokestacks. Globally, however, agriculture and land use—including deforestation—account for nearly a quarter of carbon emissions, more than either transportation or industry, according to the EPA. In the US, agriculture accounts for nearly ten percent of our country’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we are serious about cutting emissions, the way we cultivate crops and livestock must change.
At the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, world leaders are working on a new, binding climate change agreement that aims to keep global warming below 2˚C. Agriculture has not been a central part of the talks, a move that writer-activist Michael Pollan has called “a huge mistake and a missed opportunity.”
Climate Change and Ag
The importance of changing our food system is emphasized in a new report from the USDA, “Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System.” Not only is farming a necessary part of the solution, but it is also threatened by climate change, according to the study.
We have already seen yield decreases of up to 2.5 percent per decade due to global warming, a trend that will only worsen, the study says. Besides the effects of changing temperature and precipitation, it warns that patterns of pests, wildfires and extreme weather events will shift and possibly intensify.
Small farmers with fewer resources at their disposal will face greater challenges in adapting to the new normal. Taken altogether, the report concludes, “Climate change is very likely to affect global, regional, and local food security by disrupting food availability, decreasing access to food, and making utilization more difficult.”
Increasing Soil Carbon
Though agriculture does not come up in the main goals of the conference, soil carbon storage has, for the first time, been officially endorsed as a method for greenhouse gas reduction. The Lima-Paris Action Agenda, a side deal where governments, NGOs and business work together on projects furthering “low carbon and resilient societies,” supports several initiatives for increasing soil carbon. As part of the deal, France has launched a global campaign to increase soil carbon and fifteen West African countries have formed a coalition to help 25 million households adopt agroecological practices.
Modern conventional farming depletes the soil of an estimated 50 to 70 percent of its carbon. Plowing increases the activity rate of soil microbes and releases soil carbon into the air. Livestock produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Burning forests to make way for farm- and rangeland releases huge blooms of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
There are ways that farmers can stop the loss of soil carbon and even reverse it. No-till techniques let more carbon accumulate in the soil. Studies from UC Berkeley scientists suggest that using compost instead of chemical fertilizer can sequester more than 1.5 tons of carbon per acre. Cover cropping not only introduces nutrients into the soil but can also limit the carbon lost when fields lie bare in between crops. Technologies like methane digesters could be used on an industrial scale to turn methane from livestock manure into less dangerous gasses, which can then be burned for energy.
Big Ag, Food Show Progress
Promisingly, Big Ag and Big Food have taken action like never before. Mars is helping small cacao growers adapt to climate change. In October, a letter signed by more than a dozen large food corporations declared that “climate change is bad for farmers and agriculture. Drought, flooding, and hotter growing conditions threaten the world’s food supply and contribute to food insecurity.” The letter included a commitment to sustainability targets.
Even as a citizen tribunal organized by environmental groups has announced plans to take Monsanto to (symbolic) trial for “crimes against nature and humanity, and ecocide,” Monsanto has committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2021. Meanwhile, the company has laid out a plan to reduce emissions, including cover cropping, reduced tillage practices and precision agriculture technology.
What the Agreement Says So Far
The first draft of the Paris agreement, released on Saturday, Dec. 5, reveals gaps and bracketed sections that countries have not yet been able to agree on. It includes a goal to “pursue a transformation towards sustainable development that fosters climate resilient and low greenhouse gas emission societies and economies, and that does not threaten food production and distribution.”
Leaders expressed optimism a binding and ambitious treaty will be achieved. Su Wei, China’s chief negotiator, said the first week “laid a solid foundation for next week … like when we cook a meal you need to have all the seasonings and ingredients and recipes, but next week is the actual cooking.”