OPINION: The Climate Change Threat Posed by Industrial Agricultural System; Sustainable Alternatives Exist

Isaac Kabongo

By Isaac Kabongo

In occasion of the climate change conference COP22 in Marrakech Climate change still remains the greatest challenge of our time. The world’s climate continues to change at rates unprecedented in recent human history. The unimpeded growth of greenhouse gas emissions is raising the earth’s temperature.

The consequences include melting glaciers, page more precipitation, more about more and more extreme weather events, and shifting seasons. Global agriculture is uniquely vulnerable to climate change.

Rising temperatures, constrained water resources, depleted soils and increased pest and disease pressure are among the climate change impacts that threaten agriculture in the coming years and decades.

Globally these changes are already influencing many systems essential for human survival including livelihoods, water resources, food security, health and business. Climate Change triggered by global warming is posing a major threat to the resilience of agricultural systems.

Increasing temperatures, changes to rainfall amount and distribution, coupled with major shifts in other meteorological parameters in comparison with long term observations have further complicated the production process.

Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change as, excluding emissions from fossil fuel consumption of machinery or from the production of fertilizers, it accounts for 13% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Changes in precipitation patterns increase the likelihood of short-run crop failures and long-run production declines. Although there will be gains in some crops in some regions of the world, the overall impacts of climate change on agriculture are expected to be negative, threatening global food security.

Climate change is already causing additional price increases for the most important agricultural crops such as rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans.

Higher feed prices have resulted in higher meat prices. As a result, climate change will reduce the growth in meat consumption and cause a more substantial fall in cereals consumption. Calories’ availability in 2050 will not only be lower than in the no climate-change scenario, it will actually decline relative to 2000 levels throughout the developing world.

Industrial farming systems have succeeded in supplying large volumes of foods to global markets, but are generating negative outcomes on multiple fronts: wide spread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high GHG emissions; biodiversity losses; persistent hunger and micro-nutrient deficiencies alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases; and livelihood stresses for farmers around the world.

Many of these problems are linked specifically to ‘industrial agriculture’: the input intensive crop monocultures and industrial-scale feedlots that now dominate farming landscapes. The uniformity at the heart of these systems, and their reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and preventive use of antibiotics, leads systematically to negative outcomes and vulnerabilities.

The environmental outlook is equally troubling. Today, food systems contribute between 19% and 29% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The agricultural sector is responsible for nitrate, phosphorus, pesticide, soil sediment and pathogen pollution in soil and water. Furthermore, agricultural systems have contributed significantly to land degradation as well as to the destruction of natural habitats and losses of wild biodiversity around the world.

Industrial agriculture is failing to sustain the people and resources on which it relies, and has come to represent an existential threat to itself, reducing emissions and the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

Industrial agriculture has also had significant impacts on wild biodiversity, jeopardizing the ability of farming systems to deliver crucial ecosystem services. Biodiversity loss is the domain in which the world has moved furthest beyond what could be considered a safe operating space.

Alternative visions and organizing principles for agriculture have evolved alongside the industrial model. Agro-ecological system offers a genuine and holistic alternative to industrial agriculture.

Diversified and less intensive systems can deliver major GHG savings and increases in resource efficiency, particularly when a life- cycle analysis approach is taken. Agro-ecological systems that seek to improve soils and maintain vegetative cover have huge potential for carbon sequestration and enhancing the resilience of communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

There is growing evidence that these systems keep carbon in the ground, support bio- diversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods. For instance at a recent international workshop organized by CIDSE on “Climate and Agriculture: Harvesting People’s solutions for sustainable Food systems”, several case studies were presented showing the potential of community-based agro-ecological initiatives to improve soil fertility, effectively use urban spaces to grow and sell food, guarantee farmers’ resilience through seeds’ breeding and much more. These inspiring examples were just a small sample of the multiplicity of initiatives existing around the world, holding a huge potential to change the currents dominant system.

It has been reported that 60% of the food consumed around the world comes from smallholder agriculture in developing countries where crop diversity is key for the resilience of farming systems.

Unfortunately, the agricultural sector has not been given serious attention it deserves in the UNFCCC international climate change negotiations, notwithstanding its very significant contribution to emissions and its capacity to offer solutions.

It’s important that UNFCCC acknowledges agriculture as a major contributor to climate change and prioritize it through; making agricultural adaptation a key agenda point within the international climate change negotiation process; increasing investments in agricultural productivity; reinvigorating national research and extension programs; improving global data collection, dissemination, and analysis; recognizing that enhanced food security and climate change adaptation go hand in hand; supporting community-based adaptation strategies; and increase funding for adaptation programs by at least an additional $7 billion per year.

There is need for International development agencies and national governments to significantly invest in research, technical assistance and financial incentives that will accelerate a systems shift from the current industrial agriculture to agro-ecological system that offers a genuine and holistic alternative, harvesting solutions from what people in many communities have already put forward.

In agriculture, adaptation will require cost-effective investments in water infrastructure, emergency preparation for and response to extreme weather events, development of resilient crop varieties that tolerate temperature and precipitation stresses, and new or improved land use and management practices.

Development of assessment tools that incorporate the biophysical constraints that affect agricultural productivity and include climate and socio-economic scenarios, including improved characterization of policy and program environments and options at the Country level.

Finally, in this shift towards sustainable agriculture it is crucially important to be aware of the risks of falling into the trap of promoting false solutions like climate-smart agriculture, a concept which falls short mainly because of its lack of clarity and accountability.

Solutions like climate-smart agriculture, that don’t really address the underlying causes of poverty, hunger, inequalities and climate change shouldn’t be considered as the way forward.

Working towards all these changes may not guarantee that all the negative consequences of climate change can be overcome. But continuing with a “business-as-usual” approach will almost certainly guarantee disastrous consequences.

The writer is the Executive Director, Ecological Christian Organisation (ECO)


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