Agroecology for a cooler planet

Why a shift is urgently needed

Part of the cause of climate change, but also part of the solution, agriculture is central to any debate on global warming and extreme weather events. Yet, as things stand, agriculture has been largely sidelined from international negotiations on climate change.

Climate change threatens our food future

Global projections indicate that climate change will decrease crop yields and lead to failed and destroyed crops around the world. While international climate talks focus on limiting glProjected_impact_of_climate_change_on_agricultural_yields_by_the_2080s,_compared_to_2003_levels_(Cline,_2007)obal temperature rise to 2°C, sub-Saharan Africa is already projected to hit 5°C above baseline temperatures before the end of the century. Even a 1°C rise will have dire impacts on agriculture.

And the impacts of climate change will not distribute themselves evenly around the globe. Arid regions, for example, will lose the little water they have and experience more frequent, crop-devastating droughts. The rising sea will claim coastal areas as glacial melt accelerates, taking with it valuable agricultural land. 

Climate change threatens farmers

The majority of the world’s population, especially in poor and food insecure areas, is produced by an estimated 500 million small-holder farmers. A significant portion of these farmers cultivate in remote and marginal areas that are most vulnerable to climate change. Many are already feeling the impacts of our rapidly changing climate and have to contend with increasingly extreme & unpredictable weather events (droughts, floods, early frost, etc.) Here lies the irony: These farmers contribute least to climate change – and often farm in ways that mitigate it – yet are most at risk of bearing the brunt of climate change which severely erodes their livelihoods and jeopardizes our food future.

Small farmers already feel the impacts of climate change

Industrial agriculture’s huge footprint

Studies estimate that industrial agriculture produces up to 15% of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) 0522_mz_farming2emissions. These mainly come from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, heavy machinery and livestock. Yet, if we also count emissions linked to packaging, processing, transportation and waste, the industrial food system is actually responsible for more than 30% of all global GHG emissionsAccording to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the emissions linked with agriculture, forestry and fisheries could rise an additional 30% by 2050, due to the reliance on chemical (nitrogen) fertilizers, fossil fuel dependent heavy machinery, and highly concentrated industrial livestock operations that pump out methane waste.The industrial food system’s share of GHG emissions has skyrocketed since 1950- making it the second largest emitting sector after energy.

 

Techno fixes won’t do the trick

To address the impact of climate change on food production, many of the world’s largest corporations and most powerful governments are touting new technology intensive solutions as quick-fixes for the climate crisis and the key to our planet’s survival:

  • Geoengineering: large scale alterations to the earth’s atmosphere in order to mitigate climate change
  • Biofuels: touted as ‘green energy alternatives’, they are also criticized for feeding cars instead of people
  • Climate-smart agriculture: spun as a new and more sustainable approach, it still allows for harmful practices, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.

These techno-fixes are not only costly to develop and spread, there is a lack of regulatory oversight. Given that whether they actually work is still unproven, we should apply the precautionary principle. Small scale farmers are the ones facing climate change, they need to be at the centre of discussions about solutions.

Agroecology as a real solution

The good news is that a viable response to the climate crisis – agroecology — is already well developed, time-tested, and practised by small-scale farmers all around the world. Relying on farmers’ knowledge, biodiversity, and farming practices that are adapted to the local ecosystem, agroecology is the science, principles and know-how behind sustainable agriculture. Agroecology aims not only to feed families, but also promotes healthy, resilient ecosystems and communities.

Agroecology is the most comprehensive approach to adapting and mitigating climate change. Inputs come from the land itself. Nutrients are recycled through composting. Farms practising agroecology actually also act as carbon sinks – that is, they pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil. By restoring organic matter to soils, agroecological farms could capture 24-30% of the current global annual greenhouse gas emissions. Global research and case studies have confirmed that agroecological farms are economically viable, and avoid the damaging impacts of industrial agriculture without sacrificing productivity or profitability.

 

Agroecology’s time has come

If we are serious about changing the path our climate is taking and helping the small-scale farmers who are on the frontlines of climate change, we need to address industrial agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and fundamentally shift our approach to food. We need to move towards a healthy, locally oriented food system that promotes ecologically produced food… and quick! We can start by supporting small- scale agroecological farmers; they can feed us and cool the planet. It’s time we rise to the challenge.

Climate change is the biggest human rights and justice problem of our time; solving it should be obligatory, not voluntary and aspirational.” 

– Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

What governments can do

  1. Ensure that agroecology is a high priority in international negotiations related to climate change and food security.
  2. Enact policies that support agroecological farming and food practices, and facilitate the entry of family farmers through access to land.
  3. Support agroecological research and extension services as well as farmer to farmer exchanges, including action research by farmer organizations themselves.
  4. Develop policies that create vibrant local markets and local procurement of food free of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to institutions such as universities, schools and hospitals. 
  5. Take measures to curb trade and investment policies that harm farmers’ food systems and agroecological practices, lead to biodiversity loss, and infringe on of the Right to Food.

 

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