As Houston, Texas, and cities across India, Nepal, and Bangladesh are still reeling from recent floods and landslides, the media is putting a spotlight on what the devastating impact of climate change looks like. Besides damaging people’s homes and businesses, many farms and fields have been destroyed by these floods, highlighting the fact that climate change puts our food and agriculture systems at great risk.
And because we work directly with family farmers around the world, we know that climate change is a major threat to people’s livelihoods and even their lives.
But while the biggest focus on stopping climate change is on ending our reliance on fossil fuels like oil and coal, more and more, experts are seeing that industrial agriculture and factory farms are also making a significant contribution to climate change. They are pointing to the need to transition to sustainable agriculture to both stop climate change and ensure that our food systems can adapt to it.
We need to transition to sustainable agriculture to stop climate change and ensure that our food systems can adapt to it.
A recent Washington Post article cited a new study which found that “planting crops and grazing livestock have caused a loss of 133 billion tons of carbon from soil worldwide.”
That’s a lot of carbon being lost to the atmosphere. It highlights just how important it is to make sure our agriculture is cooling, rather than heating, the planet.
Today, global agriculture is dominated by multinational seed, chemical, and machinery companies. This industrial agriculture system is estimated to contribute between 24% and 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. These companies use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil and biodiversity, stripping the soil of vital nutrients that make it unable to store carbon.
Factory farmed livestock also produce excessive amounts of manure and waste that emit methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more harmful to the climate than carbon dioxide.
Moreover, industrial agriculture operates on a large scale and takes up the majority of the world’s farmland, yet it produces as little as one third of the world’s food. By far, the vast majority of farms in the world are small – less than two and a half acres – and they produce most of the food we eat.
But the study featured in the Washington Post article fails to identify that it is large-scale, industrial agriculture which is the biggest factor in global agriculture’s contributions to climate change.
Moreover, the solutions suggested in the article – “more efficient crop rotation” and changing the “way land is plowed or tilled” – do not challenge industrial agriculture at all. In fact, these “best management practices” align with what is being pushed as “climate smart agriculture,” which the global farmers’ movement La Via Campesina has denounced as being a corporate co-optation of small-scale, ecological agriculture that local farmers have been fighting for.
La Via Campesina is clear that “small farmers cool the planet,” and they are fighting for food sovereignty and agroecology, a real “revolution” in the global model of industrialized and corporate agriculture and food.
In 2008, the UN, World Bank, and World Health Organization published a major report called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The report showed that the only way to “feed the world” in the future is to embrace small farms producing food through sustainable agriculture, which promotes biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem while also addressing social and economic inequalities.
The threat of climate change was one of the biggest reasons the authors of this report identified sustainable agriculture and small farms as the way for the world to move forward. They also found that sustainable agriculture was very productive and could certainly ensure that everyone had food now and in the future.
There is a strong myth in the U.S. that we need to produce more food in order to keep up with a growing world population, and that is why we have shifted from small-scale farming to industrial farming. This is not true. The world produces enough food to feed everyone. The problem of hunger is not a problem of production but a problem of access and distribution.
When we say “sustainable agriculture”, we’re talking about a way of farming that carefully manages natural resources like water and land. We’re talking about putting livestock back on the family farm, where they grow together with crops, fruits and vegetables and are fed by grains grown on the farm.
And we’re talking about putting the people who produce our food – the hundreds of millions of landless workers and peasant farmers, many of them women and children – and who are most likely to be themselves hungry, at the center of our food and agriculture policies.
Sustainable agriculture isn’t just a way of the past or a dream for the future. Sustainable farms exist today, and research is showing that they are very productive and could feed the world.
Climate and agricultural gains cannot be seen as tradeoffs. The industrialization of agriculture and its increasing scale over the last century is a problem, and we need a new model of food and agriculture now.