Middle row, first seat on the left was my home at the French pavilion on Tuesday, as I joined leaders from around the world in discussing the relationship between climate change, agriculture and global food security.
Although the Agriculture Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector is the greatest contributor of global greenhouse gas emissions just after the energy sector, it is often left out of the conversation. Some aspects of agriculture, and especially industrial agriculture, that have contributed negatively to the climate include:
- Oil based fertilizers
- Contaminated water sources from chemical runoff
- Soil degradation from chemical use and monocropping
- Deforestation and erosion
- Emissions and contamination from the long-distance shipment of produce
The general concern of climate scientists and sustainable food and agriculture activists is that the Paris agreements and UNFCCC documents (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) will not include mention of agriculture or implementation of agriculture-related mitigation or adaptation techniques. This would be a great disappointment, as climate change has led to decreased crop yields in a world where 800 million are already going hungry. Oyundi Nehando, Programme Coordinator at Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Kenya put it perfectly when he said “If we focus on global emissions without considering nutrition, [the COP21} is as good as nothing.”
But just what are the conversations surrounding agriculture at the COP21 like and how do these leaders hope to change current realities for a brighter and healthier future?
Let’s start from the very bottom: soil. Tuesday marked the launch of the 4 to 1000 initiative, an international research program that aims to mitigate climate change through reduction in atmospheric CO2 while simultaneously improving soil fertility and thus addressing food security. The name signifies how: by increasing soil matter by 0.4% each year. Doing so would eventually allow us to double the amount of carbon in soil by 2030 and would thus offset extra carbon in the atmosphere. So basically, it’s a big deal.
How does it work?
In simple terms, plants take in carbon through their leaves. The carbon then travels down the plants to their roots and nests in the soil. As such, the soil “traps” the carbon and keeps it out of the atmosphere. What’s more, soil with more carbon is more fertile and can lead to improved growth conditions around the world.
While improving soil is all good and well, scientists differ on how they hope to do so. Some spoke of agroecology, which can be described as the inclusion of ecology and science in the design and management of agroecosystems. In simpler terms, agroecology takes into account natural systems already in place as well as traditional knowledge to grow food. Many climate scientists and activists at COP21 agreed that agroecology is the best farming practice as it takes into account both climate change and hunger by growing more food with less disruption of natural ecosystems. Some members however expressed concerns about agroecology, as it takes time to learn and is often abandoned by farmers for being too complicated. It is especially important to listen to these concerns, as they were voiced by farmers themselves from West Africa and Morocco, who are seeing the issue of land degradation first-hand. On the contrary however, other panelists noted that agroecology is easier and cheaper for peasant farmers than other solutions, as it requires no harsh chemicals or expensive tools. The lack of chemicals not only improves health directly, but also indirectly, as one speaker pointed out that there are 300,000 suicides in India each year, many of whom are farmers who feel they have “sold their souls” to work with chemical farming.
Another system that comes up in conversation often is “Climate Smart Agriculture” (CSA). The two are often confused, but there are some very important distinctions that should be made. Like agroecology, CSA aims to increase agricultural productivity and farmer livelihood, build resilience of food systems to climate change, and reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. The difference however is that CSA does not always champion following the natural ecosystem to achieve these results. CSA has been accused of being politically driven, as it may champion Genetically Modified Crops (GMOs), synthetic fertilizers and industrial agriculture, a field which has contributed greatly to environmental degradation though emissions, water contamination and inefficient land use.
Regardless of the most appropriate agricultural technique used, many people around the world continue to be malnourished and hungry. Hunger is the physical sensation one feels with the absence of any food at all, while malnourishment means an individual is not receiving the nutrients they need to live a healthy lifestyle, even if they are eating something. The common myth about hunger is that we do not have enough food to feed our growing global population. Rather, many panelists agreed that the problem is a skewed distribution system which leads to hunger and food waste, an inefficiency that also contributes greatly to climate change through release of greenhouse gasses from decomposition and risk for disease. Even worse, with climate change increasing temperature and precipitation variability, farmers around the world are experiencing crop yield and livelihood losses. This will only worsen global food security by raising prices for food and negatively affecting the one billion people in the world who rely on agriculture for a living. Climate change is therefore both caused by unsustainable agriculture and also posing major risks to general agriculture around the world.
Unfortunately, many panelists shared the sentiment that it would be difficult to get specific ideas such as agroecology in this year’s climate goals, especially considering that human rights did not show up in the UNFCCC until 2010 in Cancun. Though we have a long way to go, it is clear that there are many powerful people around the world (scientists, farmers, businesspersons, etc.), who recognize the issue of food insecurity and have committed their lives to targeting it.
Thankfully, as is the case with many climate-related issues, individuals can do a lot to help the problem right at home. For readers who care about hunger and nutrition as well as climate change and would like to make a genuine difference, here are some ways you can get involved:
- Stop Wasting Food. You can do so by going to the grocery more frequently and buying less, buying foods that don’t look as “pretty,” freezing half of what you buy to use later on to avoid spoilage, making soups out of browning vegetables, donating to food pantries, hosting a dinner party. Be creative!
- Buy Locally and Seasonally. This reduces emissions from travel, both for you and your food! The food is also likely healthier (if it wasn’t treated with tons of chemicals-local doesn’t mean organic) as the volatile chemicals inside that make them so healthy (such as antioxidants) are still around. This also means the food is in season, another indicator of greater healthy chemical presence. Foods that are not in season are picked early and often chemically treated to make them the right color when the time comes. Buying local food directly from the farmer at markets is especially key, as it supports the local community and supports farmers in your town.
- Pay Attention to Labels. Socially responsible consumption such as direct trade often ensures sustainable growing practices and just labor practices. Unfortunately there are hundreds of labels that mean different things. Take the few minutes to do some research online and figure out what labels actually mean. Typically, organic foods are better for the environment as they are grown without harmful pesticides. Fair Trade items also often include organic certification as well as other environmental protection measures. That said, the safest option (and often cheapest option!) is to shop at your local farmers market where you know the farmer and his/her practices.
-Written by Naomi Maisel, 12/02/15