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