Climate change is one of the unique realities of our time. We’re still divided about how to deal with it, and we have yet to develop a coherent strategy for mitigating it. At its core, climate change is a global process that is influenced by human action and has tangible consequences for our world. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll rely on your awareness of the topic as sufficient and move into the more substantive material.
Agriculture has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. During the many years between the invention of the metal plow and the Industrial Revolution, agricultural methods and economies did not change much relative to how much they changed after the Industrial Revolution. Much of agriculture in the developed world is now highly mechanized, involves few humans, and relies as much on a knowledge of technology as it does on a knowledge of land. Agricultural economies have expanded from small communities based on relationships to international markets based on commodity prices.
Agricultural activities unfortunately contribute to climate change in many ways. The burning of fossil fuels in grain trucks, large tractors, and other farm machinery contributes to air pollution. Seepage or leakage from massive waste-holding tanks underneath meat factories contribute to many instances of environmental injustice, water pollution, watershed runoff, air pollution, and accelerated erosion. The constant tilling of land and removal of forests releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Palm oil production in jungle regions has led to widespread deforestation (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/03012017/agriculture-climate-change-paris-agreement-global-warming-drought). Researchers say that meat and dairy production creates nearly 20% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and livestock production as a whole produces more GHG emission that the international transport sector (https://www.iatp.org/tackling-livestocks-contribution-to-climate-change?utm_source=IATP+Full+List&utm_campaign=2533fff963-IATP_News_January1_22_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3f024f9ff8-2533fff963-74967457&ct=t(IATP_News_May_2017) ). The majority of the problem, to be clear, comes from industrial food production. The article cited directly above points out that even if the entire world was able to successfully eliminate all sources of GHG production except industrial and factory farming, we would have no chance of reducing our emissions to safe levels. Technical improvements in the ways that waste is managed can only do so much, and eventually a large-scale change will be necessary. However, the system of industrial food production is fed with a continuous stream of funding from the current agricultural subsidy scheme (sound familiar?), which externalizes the true costs of production in order to keep the products cheap.
Climate change will also impact agriculture in many ways. During the time I spent working with maize farmers in rural East Africa, I saw the manifestation of climate change in the ways the farmers made decisions. For instance, certain communities had adjusted to the increased regularity of severe weather events by changing their seasonal planting schedule and mixing up their crop choices. Even with these adjustments, the farmers were not always safe, as erratic hail storms often wiped out entire crops in one night. This level of unpredictability led to hesitation in planting, market volatility, and frequent changes in commodity prices. The U.S. National Climate Assessment points to five specific ways that climate change will affect agriculture – by altering the stability of food supplies (drastically more so in the developing world), increasing the spread of crop and animal disease, exacerbating soil erosion, accentuating heat and drought-related weather events, and forcing technological development around climate change to adapt more rapidly (http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/sectors/agriculture). While some benefits may come to plants and trees as a result of the greater CO2 concentration in the air and therefore greater photosynthesis potential, these will be largely outweighed by the economic and environmental issues that accompany them. Of particular concern is the health of agricultural soils; increased rainfall in a northern climate, for instance, leads to more erosion, which leads to more excess nutrient runoff, which leads to water contamination, which can lead to public health problems in nearby communities (http://www.gracelinks.org/blog/7755/10-ways-climate-change-impacts-agriculture-and-seafood?utm_source=GRACE+Newsletter&utm_campaign=77932a4213-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_02_3&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d8918a9897-77932a4213-119808721).
How can agriculture mitigate climate change? Farmers are actually in the perfect place to implement systems that will mitigate the effects of climate change. The best way for them to do this is through land conservation (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/28/business/energy-environment/navigating-climate-change-in-americas-heartland.html). Iowa, California, and New England are leading the way on this approach, but there is so much more that can be done. Conservation practices revolve around the health of the soil and are based on the reality that soil can store up to 20 billion metric tons of carbon per year. According to a recent study from the University of California, that is enough power to light 114 million homes with electricity for an entire year (http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/brand-connect/ucdavis/a-climate-change-solution-beneath-our-feet/). Investing in the preservation of healthy soil leads to carbon sequestration and environmental benefits but also leads to long-term crop growth benefits.
Farmers can also participate in other methods of carbon sequestration, more recently labeled “carbon farming” (http://modernfarmer.com/2016/04/carbon-sequestration/). These methods include increasing the amount of land used as pasture, eliminating all tillage and planting with seed drills, rotating the types of grazing animals on each field, and incorporating mulch and cover crops into crop fields even during the growing season (http://modernfarmer.com/2016/03/carbon-farming/). In other words, carbon farmers could grow a vetch or a rye crop underneath their corn stalks. For those who live in parts of America, Europe, and Australia that have carbon sequestration credit programs, carbon farming could also be very economically profitable.
Climate change, in short, is a call to farmers everywhere to evolve and change (http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/russell-climate-mitigation/?utm_source=roundup&utm_medium=email). American farmers in particular are in a position to affect positive change in this regard. This is because they have such a wide range of tools from which to choose when deciding how to react to climate change (govt land conservation programs, land grant programs, state departments of agriculture, USDA resources, extension services, etc). Matt Russell from the Drake University School of Law notes that businesses will only go so far in terms of investing in agricultural products that carry the label “sustainable” or “climate friendly.” He therefore encourages farmers to expand their operations in a way that will make environmentally-friendly practices the norm and not the anomaly. In particular, he challenges the agriculture industry to address the water quality and water safety issues that are unfortunately becoming more common. In a co-authored paper (http://drakeaglaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/250117-Russell-Final-Macro2.pdf), Russell argues for a volunteer market to be created on the international scale, one that will value the realities created by climate change and invest in mitigating them. His model includes everyone from the farmers all the way to the local buyers, national markets, and international organizations that oversee agricultural production as stakeholders in the volunteer market. He stresses that there needs to be investment in the climate issue on both ends – from the farmers (through creating environmentally friendly products) as well from the buyers (through pulling the products up the supply chain, creating markets for environmentally friendly products, and incentivizing further development and production). The end goal would be to link such a market to a legal framework the operates through the U.N. or some other large multinational body, preferably through a carbon tax methodology.
What about the policy and legislative front? I am a fan of Jedidiah Purdy’s approach, as described in this article: http://prospect.org/article/new-culture-rural-america. Purdy is a law professor at Duke University, and he advocates for a policy vision that makes a conscious effort to understand both the environmental and agricultural factors. In some instances (water pollution from poor animal waste management practices in CAFO’s, for instance), regulation is most likely the appropriate choice. However, there are a variety of other options that can be utilized that, I believe, will be much more effective than regulation. For instance, financial incentives for participating in the Conservation Reserve Program and resting certain fields each year could be increased. Universities and land grant institutions could invest student and faculty academic research power into the development of new technologies and new research on ways to sequester carbon through soil and forest management. A carbon tax could be implemented (see my earlier post on this topic for my reasoning). Lawyers in firms, government agencies, and nonprofits can partner to work with landowners and farmers to conserve their land for the long-term. One thing, however, is very clear: without the involvement of a wide swath of society, noticeable change will be slow indeed.