The agricultural fulcrum: better food, better climate

Diana Donlon writes: This past year treated us to a climate change preview in spades: crazy heat waves, prolonged drought, and epic storms like Sandy. To help us stabilize the climate, before we reach the point of no return, we must tap the immense potential of our food system.

Since becoming an agrarian society, we’ve known that growing food successfully depends on climate stability. Not enough water, crops wither and die. Too much, they rot. Beyond this, we know that crops have specific climatic requirements. Wheat, for instance, grows best in a dry, mild climate. Stone fruits like cherries need a minimum number of “chill hours” in order to blossom and later fruit. Intense heat disrupts pollination and can even shut down photosynthesis. These are basic parameters. If we continue to disregard them, food will become more scarce over time and we will go hungry. Indeed, as the National Climate Assessment, the government’s 1,146-page report released earlier this week states: “The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded.”

Agriculture, positioned as it is at the intersection of food and climate, presents a unique fulcrum. Pushed in the direction of industrial agriculture, it contributes egregiously to our climate problem: As activist Bill McKibben has noted, industrial agriculture — predominant in the U.S. — “essentially insures that your food is marinated in crude oil before you eat it.” This is because at every step, from the production of fertilizers and pesticides to the harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting of materials, the industrial food system depends on climate-changing fossil fuels. Indeed, in a new report on climate change and food systems, the agriculture research organization CGIAR concluded that our global food system is responsible for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

But we can tip the scale in the other direction toward sustainable agriculture, working in concert with natural systems instead of depleting them. This side of the scale presents an elegant, under-recognized opportunity to stabilize the climate. Not only do agro-ecological, organic and other sustainable farming methods emit significantly less greenhouse gas (GHG) overall, they can also sequester or store excess carbon. Given our long list of existing environmental worries — erosion, polluted watersheds, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico — strengthening our top soil is a lot smarter than loading it up with nitrogen and washing it down the Mississippi. [Continue reading…]

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