29. Agriculture and Climate Change — and the Farm Bill

The bad news is, in a sense, nothing new.  Farmers have always worried about droughts, floods, hail, unseasonable frosts, harvest-decreasing heat waves, and the insect and disease outbreaks that might be associated with unusual weather.  It merely does not help that global climate change can make all of these likelier, more severe, and less predictable.

The good news is very new, however:  the quite recent discovery that certain agricultural practices can take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it into the soil for the long term.  We’re talking tons of carbon per acre that can be removed from being greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and turned into increased soil fertility with each growing season.  Which could both mitigate climate change and its rougher weather, and make the same amount of land more productive.  Sounds like a massive win-win.

The only problem is that just some agricultural practices do the trick, while the practices commonest in the developed world are a big part of what created the problem.  The erosion caused by overgrazing, and also industrial-agriculture tilling done by huge gas-guzzling machinery for growing commodity crops on farms of thousands of acres, both release a lot of carbon into the air.  The practices that sequester carbon, in contrast, are the ones that work with nature.  They may be called agroecology or regenerative or sustainable agriculture.  They minimize the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, using green manures, cover crops, and compost to increase soil fertility, and using companion planting and crop rotation to minimize loss to pests. When they graze animals, they limit their numbers and keep moving them around to maintain a healthy greensward.  These practices are all easier to do as part of a smaller operation.  And yes, these techniques do produce enough food for all — if their produce is not wasted on animal feed and biofuels.

So we actually know what our global civilization’s  agriculture needs to do to stop and reverse climate change, and we have good ideas of how to do it.

The problem is that national policies, much influenced by corporate profit motives and expressed, for example, in the U.S. Farm Bill, are all still pushing the wrong way.  And as long as government subsidies set up a situation in which mechanized industrial-scale farming is what farmers have to do to stay in business, that’s what they’re going to do.

I’m making a good guess, though, that for most farmers the real bottom line is that they just want to make a living growing food for people to eat.  Change the rules so that they could make a good living using agroecology practices and producing vegetables — instead of erosive practices growing, say, commodity corn — and most farmers would be fine with making a switch.

To feed the world, we need both a livable world and a situation in which farmers can grow food for its citizens.  Identifying the areas in which agricultural policy needs to change is a necessary first stop towards getting there.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

19. Models For Field Agriculture

For ending hunger, field agriculture must not be neglected — regarding which there are two vastly different models.  The pluses and minuses of each must be considered.

In the developed world/ global north, the Enlightenment’s scientific method and the Industrial Revolution combined to produce a form of agriculture that relies on machinery for plowing, sowing, reaping, and irrigation, on manufactured fertilizers and hybrid seeds, and since about 1950 on chemical pesticides and herbicides.  The push for genetically modified seeds and the use of such innovations as self-driving tractors, condition-monitoring drones, and smartphone-c0ntrolled irrigation are all just logical next steps for this model.  These techniques were adopted enthusiastically in the global north not least because they were a very good fit with the economic philosophies of capitalism and mercantilism  that dominate these geographical areas.  And without question, industrial agriculture has vastly increased yields (at least in the short term).  Indeed, the shunting of much of U.S. corn production to ethanol and high fructose corn syrup arose when U.S. corn harvests at one point in time were too great to profitably sell for food.

So industrial agriculture’s big plus is its high yields — and that is not negligible.  Nonetheless, it also has a few big problems.  The high cost of the machinery, hybrid seeds, and chemicals is one.  Another is the way the chemicals pollute water, which kills fish and frogs and creates ocean dead zones, while they also kill pollinators and beneficial insects and the birds that depend on the insects:  the threat of mass extinction in the biosphere we ultimately depend on is also not negligible on general principles, besides that destroying pollinators will surely decrease food production.  Industrial agriculture is also highly erosive, further undermining its sustainability.  And in many areas it is dependent on unsustainable levels of irrigation, drawing on groundwater and surface water faster than it can be replenished.  The huge wheat harvests on North America’s High Plains, for example, depend on persistent overuse of the Oglalla Aquifer, which keeps drawing it down further — and once it’s gone, there won’t be any wheat harvests there.  California, Russia’s Aral Sea, and India’s Punjab region are a few other places where this last phenomenon is occurring.

The Punjab situation brings up yet another problem with industrial agriculture:  it has not transferred  well to the global south.  We know this because that transfer is exactly what the Green Revolution tried to do, and while the Green Revolution boosted yields wildly in the beginning, it then foundered badly.  Free seeds and fertilizer were offered for the first few years to get developing world farmers started, but once these incentives were withdrawn most peasants farmers could not afford expensive hybrid seeds and chemicals, yet they had by then lost their locally-adapted heirloom seed varieties and been taught to plant pest-attracting monocultures.  The hybrid seeds did not perform well without the chemicals and irrigation that were simply unaffordable to many in the developing world, leaving them mired in debt and with farms that were often less productive than before the Green Revolution started.  Nor had the temporarily increased yields actually relieved hunger, since the population had grown in lockstep with the temporarily higher harvests.  The promise of industrial agriculture’s Green Revolution has thus fizzled thoroughly in the global south.

Industrial agriculture’s unsustainability  in the north and inapplicability to the south make it worth looking at the other agricultural model, which has come to be called agroecology.  First, it is important to state that agroecology is not a step backward to preindustrial subsistence.  What it does do is look at the productivity, stability, sustainability, and equitability of an agricultural system, considering these four properties as interconnected and all integral to each other and to a successful form of agriculture.  Agroecology is not averse to technology;  for example, I read this week of an initiative to bring drip irrigation to peasant farmers in Guatemala’s highlands who are suffering from a climate-change-induced decrease in rainfall.  But it does use technology selectively and includes organic practices.  It seeks to work in harmony with each ecosystem, and to grow food in ways that are both ecologically sustainable and enable locally indigenous people to hold and farm their traditional lands by combining useful modern technologies with the sophisticated practices that their ancestors had developed over centuries to grow enough food in accord with each area’s own climate and soil and biotic community.  Agroecology thus supports food sovereignty and justice as well as food production.  Its apparent drawback is that it does not get nearly as high a yield per acre of any particular crop as industrial agriculture does.  But it is crucial to note that because it uses companion planting and succession cropping, it often gets more tons of food per acre than industrial agriculture’s mono-crops.   And it does so in ways that conserve and enhance the soil, sequester huge amounts of carbon, preserve local cultures and communities, and can continue to do so indefinitely.

Agroecology is especially well suited to the global south where the capital needed for industrial agriculture is hard to come by.  But it is just as useful in the global north, where small farmers use organic and biodynamic and IPM practices and raise livestock on pasture and sell through farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture  and local co-ops and local restaurants.

Industrial agriculture’s high yields can be useful in solving the problem of world hunger, especially if they can be turned from growing commodities and livestock feed to growing food directly for people.  There is even such a thing as “industrial organic” production.  But for producing good food that people can grow themselves or otherwise access and afford, in ways that mitigate climate change and preserve pollinators and the rest of the biosphere, agroecology needs to become a whole lot more dominant — everywhere.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

Introduction

A first blog post is necessarily introductory, of both subject and self.

My subject springs from much reading and engagement in the areas of:  gardening;  agriculture;  environmental issues;  nutrition;  plant-based diets;  and social justice.  This combination of interests and experiences gives me critical insights into both the problems that cause hunger and malnutrition on our planet, and also into areas of slack in the system from which real solutions could be developed.

The problem is that malnutrition exists (despite current agricultural production of enough calories to feed everyone) while the human population is still growing.  Economic factors are surely part of this problem, and improving economic equity and empowering (or re-empowering) the poor to grow and be able to buy good food is pretty well understood to be needed.  But there is also concern that even if this were achieved, it would be inadequate to feed us all as human numbers grow even larger and as more less-poor people desire a richer diet.

For there are limits to what plants can produce.  All the good agricultural land is now in use.  Overuse of marginal land is causing desertification that exacerbates the problem.  Use of water for irrigation and livestock is already at such unsustainable levels that aquifers and surface water are being drawn down worldwide (from the US high plains and California to India and the Aral Sea) to a degree that further compromises our ability to grow food into the future.  Climate chaos throws an additional sabot into the works.  Further, one of the biggest causes of both food shortage and greenhouse gasses is raising livestock, yet as people climb out of poverty the demand for animal food rises beyond any kind of sustainability.

Is big problem.

But there are also solutions, and they lie in correcting current misuse and underuse of what we have.  Waste is a huge area to address.  Devoting over 90% of US corn acreage to biofuels, animal feed, and  high fructose corn syrup is another.  Suburban lawns and urban rooftops and vacant lots represent space where enormous amounts of food could be grown.  And people can eat amazingly well using very little animal food (or even none!).  So even as we work towards zero population growth and economic equity, there are things we can do to greatly increase the amount of available food.  And while we can’t end hunger solely by resolving any one of these factors, working on all of them together could do the trick.

I plan in this blog to report on efforts and initiatives already known of or being tried to address each of these areas of slack in the system.  I will discuss what people can do individually and what will require concerted citizen action to make changes at the policy level.  I hope to cross-pollinate ideas so that people interested in one aspect of the problem of world hunger, or working on one of the solutions, can be enabled to learn and act more widely, and in better coordination with others.  It’s because of this cross-pollination of ideas that I call myself “the gentle bee.”

As far as who I am, my first tiny garden was planted in the mid-1970s when I was in my twenties.  I’ve lived in urban “bedroom communities” and have gardened in back yards, front yards, and community gardens.  I’ve been a Community Supported Agriculture subscriber and farmers’ market patron.  I learned about human nutrition during my pregnancy and then taught it for 27 years as a Bradley Method childbirth educator.  My daughter was already interested in vegetarianism when I met my vegan husband;  he and I got a vegetarian group started (Milwaukee Area Resources for Vegetarianism) and I’ve written its monthly newsletter since 1994. I wrote a food/nutrition/cookbook, Food Pyramid Feast, published in 2000. I myself drifted slowly into eating a plant-based diet, and have been ov0-lacto-vegetarian for about 15 years.  My interest in and knowledge about food and growing it is thus long and varied — and ongoing.

Finally, a plea for indulgence:  my first exposure to computers in 1975 pretty thoroughly defined the term “user UNfriendly” and traumatized me for life.  So this is my very first venture into the blogosphere, and I have a lot to learn.  I can only hope that my content will be interesting and useful enough for readers to stick with me while I figure out how to do this.

Thanking you in advance for your patience, and hoping to reward it, I am

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley