How farmers can fight climate change and hunger
Can improved agricultural practices help fight both climate change and hunger? Yes, according to one the world’s most esteemed climate scientists. In fact, when meting out money for mitigating climate change, Canada should prioritize supporting small family farming.
James Hansen, who is the retired head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has warned that the melting of Arctic ice could set in motion further warming by thawing frozen methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. This scale of additional warming would make our planet too hot to support life as we know it. Fortunately, we can still avoid catastrophic global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, and by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in soils.
While carbon pricing and rapidly declining costs for renewable energy are helping to reduce emissions and fast-track the transition to zero-carbon energy alternatives worldwide, much more needs to be done.
When it comes to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere several negative emissions technologies (NETs) have been proposed but most of these, such as spreading minerals to enhance geological carbon capture, are unproven and risk unacceptable social and ecological impacts. Hansen argues that the safest and most cost-effective solution is to sequester carbon in soils through agroecological farming and forestry practices.
Agroecology couples farmers’ traditional knowledge with current science to improve soil fertility and biodiversity while storing more carbon in the ground. It promises to combat hunger by dramatically increasing crop yields for farmers who eke out their subsistence from degraded croplands. It is an alternative to industrial farming, which is based on heavy machinery, monocultures, and the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that degrade the soil and its ability to hold carbon.
The world’s soils hold 3.3 times more carbon than the atmosphere and 4.5 times more than vegetation, according to Rattan Lal, an expert in soil science and director of the Carbon Management Sequestration Center at Ohio State University.
Hansen estimates that about 100 additional gigatonnes (billions of metric tonnes) of carbon could be captured and stored this century with improved agriculture and forestry practices. Agroecological practices include using compost and other organic fertilizers, crop rotation, conservation tillage, multi-cropping, cover cropping, spreading manure, and improved grazing.
A study from the Stockholm Environment Institute shows how additional carbon dioxide removal could be achieved through the restoration of some natural ecosystems.
According to Simone Lovera, executive director of the Global Forest Coalition: “The most promising actions, like community conservation and restoration of ecosystems through agroecological practices, require relatively small amounts of appropriate public support, including legal support, rather than large amounts of…finance.”
While investments in forest preservation are needed, the option of selling credits for soil carbon retention on international markets through schemes such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) must be avoided. Unfortunately, these market mechanisms are characterized by widespread fraud and grave human rights violations, such as forcing indigenous peoples off their land.
In its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Canada would do well to support small farmers and agroecological practices in this country and abroad, while at the same time increasing efforts to transition towards a clean-energy economy as soon as possible.
Specifically, Canada could develop agricultural and environmental policies that recognize the essential role of small family farming in the struggle against climate change and hunger. This includes supporting access to land for small family farmers, agroecology, and the development of local farmers’ markets, and including the voices of small family farmers in all consultations and decisions that affect them.
The Canadian government promised $2.65-billion in climate finance for developing countries between 2016 and 2020. Support for small-scale farmers and agroecology is a cost-effective solution to help reduce greenhouse gases and hunger, and should be a spending priority.
John Dillon is an ecological economy program co-ordinator with KAIROS Canada.
Originally published on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017 in The Hill Times by John Dillon