April 27, 2014 – A report that makes a very thorough assessment of the environmental gains to be made by reshaping our farming methods was issued last Friday. The study was authored by scientists at two consulting firms: Climate Focus (CF) and California Environmental Associates (CEA). It was funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance, a coalition of major U.S. foundations. Strategies studied were numerous; they include managing soil nutrients, halting deforestation, reductions in animal husbandry, using less fertilizer, storing carbon in croplands, and converting manure into compost and biogas through anaerobic digestion. Consumers, for their part, need to eat less meat and reduce food waste. A “demitarian” – a term I’d never heard before - is someone who cuts their consumption of red meat in half.
Countries poised to make the biggest contributions in this area are, no surprise, big ones: Brazil, China, India, the EU, and the United States. According to the report, yearly greenhouse gas emissions for which agriculture is responsible could be reduced by 50 to 90 percent by 2030 if redirected policies are put in place. Agriculture produces 20 percent of all greenhouse gases.
A major portion of these gases is produced by livestock. This is where Americans have an especially important role to play, since, even after reducing our beef consumption, we still lead the world in that dietary habit. China must also find a way to curb rampant increases in beef eating. Amy Dickie, of CEA, pointed out that “Steering the Chinese diet in a more climate-friendly direction would yield enormous benefits for the country’s health and food security, as well as the global climate.” (Anything the Chinese undertake is magnified in effect by their huge population.)
Elsewhere, great advances can be made in food storage and cooling. Refrigeration is not commonly available in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where it is – plainly – badly needed. Farmers in Southeast Asia must also learn about reducing methane emissions given off in their rice fields. China, once again, has an important role to play by changing the way they grow their food. Chinese farmers use too much fertilizer, and could easily cut its use by 30 to 60 percent without damaging production.
There is yet another part to be played by agriculture in reducing the likelihood of climate chaos, and that is the storage of carbon in farmland, pastures, and agroforests. Brazil, for example, could adopt silvopastoral systems (combining crops, trees, and livestock) and improve the quality of its pasture grass, thereby sequestering carbon and limiting deforestation. You may know this approach to farming as permaculture.
Whatever you call it, it’s time to get busy!
With thanks to the Thomas Reuters Foundation and science20.com.