Food Production is a Major Cause of Climate Change, but Farmers Can be Part of the Solution

Christopher Walljasper October 4, 2019

A fire burns in the Amazon area of rural settlement PDS Nova Fronteira, in the city of Novo Progresso, Para state, northern Brazil, on Sept. 3. According to Amazon Watch, many of the fires consuming the rain forest are intentionally set to clear land for cattle pasture and soybean production.

Edi­tor’s Note: This sto­ry was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

Farm­ing, more than any oth­er indus­try, might be the best hope for curb­ing cli­mate change.

The glob­al food pro­duc­tion sys­tem, which includes agri­cul­ture, accounts for more than a third of man-made green­house gas­es, accord­ing to an August report from the Unit­ed Nations’ Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change.

And while past focus has been on indus­tries such as fos­sil fuels and trans­porta­tion, new atten­tion is being put on agriculture’s role in the cli­mate change solu­tion. On Sept. 18, a coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing 10,000 farm­ers and ranch­ers deliv­ered a let­ter to Con­gress sup­port­ing the Green New Deal, a con­gres­sion­al res­o­lu­tion to tran­si­tion the Unit­ed States to 100 per­cent clean ener­gy by 2030.

Farm­ers and ranch­ers are on the front lines of the cli­mate cri­sis. Their liveli­hoods are put at risk by more intense droughts and storms and flood­ing, and extreme heat and humid­i­ty are endan­ger­ing the health of farm work­ers,” said New Mex­i­co Con­gress­woman Deb Haa­land at a press con­fer­ence announc­ing the coali­tion. It makes all the sense in the world that farm­ers and ranch­ers sup­port our Green New Deal resolution.”

Haa­land cospon­sored the Green New Deal when it was intro­duced in Feb­ru­ary 2019.

The UN’s August report warns that man-made emis­sions have already begun to threat­en the world’s food security.

As the warn­ings of cli­mate change begin to be mea­sured in years and decades rather than half-cen­turies, chang­ing the way the world grows, dis­trib­utes and con­sumes food could help slow the effects, the report sug­gests. But some sci­en­tists say a slow roll­out of con­ser­va­tion prac­tices that min­i­mize soil ero­sion, defor­esta­tion and green­house gas emis­sions may be too lit­tle, too late.

Ignor­ing cli­mate change will hurt agri­cul­ture in the long run,” said Ben­jamin Houl­ton, direc­tor of the John Muir Insti­tute of the Envi­ron­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis.

The rapid defor­esta­tion of the Ama­zon rain­for­est high­lights the way the world’s con­sump­tion can con­flict with the desire for conservation.

While the world’s most pow­er­ful nations pledged $40 mil­lion to help stop fires from rag­ing in Brazil’s Ama­zon rain­for­est, they failed to rec­og­nize that many of these fires were set to clear land for cat­tle pas­tures and soy­bean pro­duc­tion, accord­ing to the Ama­zon Watch, a non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion focused on pro­tect­ing the rain­for­est. Brazil’s pres­i­dent, Jair Bol­sonaro, cam­paigned on a promise to bring eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment to the Ama­zon.

Even after Brazil’s pres­i­dent insti­tut­ed a 60-day mora­to­ri­um on burn­ing in the rain­for­est, near­ly 4,000 new fires have been observed by Brazil’s Nation­al Space Research Institute.

The trade war between U.S. and Chi­na may have con­tributed to these new fires. 

Chi­na went from buy­ing near­ly 29 mil­lion met­ric tons of Amer­i­can soy­beans in 2017 to less than six mil­lion, an 80 per­cent drop.

The coun­try still need­ed much of that soy to feed its live­stock, so it turned to Brazil, which increased its soy­bean exports to Chi­na, from just more than 50 mil­lion met­ric tons in 2017 to 66 mil­lion last year.

As the trade war between the U.S. and Chi­na con­tin­ues to stall, Brazil­ian farm­ers see an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cap­ture the Chi­nese soy­bean mar­ket long term, said Jim Sut­ter, CEO of U.S. Soy­bean Export Council.

Grow­ers in Brazil are get­ting a finan­cial sig­nal to grow more, because there’s a mar­ket for it. I think they’re ramp­ing up to grow more,” he said.

Sut­ter said Brazil, with sup­port from Chi­nese state-run com­pa­nies like COF­CO, is build­ing infra­struc­ture like ports and roads, to more effi­cient­ly trans­port crops from South Amer­i­can to China.

Shift­ing the Focus to Agriculture

Much of the cli­mate change con­ver­sa­tion over the last 30 years has been focused on the trans­porta­tion and ener­gy sec­tors, said Jason Clay, senior vice pres­i­dent of mar­kets for the World Wildlife Fund. But that’s not because they are the biggest sources of emissions.

The most green­house gasses have always been in the food sec­tor. It’s just too big and com­pli­cat­ed to actu­al­ly fig­ure out how to address it, through so many dif­fer­ent pro­duc­ers and so many dif­fer­ent sup­ply chains,” Clay said.

Adjust­ing course in the way food is pro­duced could scale back the impacts of cli­mate change, and there are signs that some U.S. farm­ers and ranch­ers are already mak­ing strides to become more sustainable.

Clay says the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment isn’t tak­ing the steps need­ed to curb the effects of cli­mate change on U.S. agri­cul­ture — news reports doc­u­ment the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s efforts to deny cli­mate sci­ence.and even repress stud­ies that don’t align with its pro-busi­ness, anti-envi­ron­ment agenda.

We don’t know the extent of the prob­lem in the U.S. yet, because we haven’t doc­u­ment­ed it well,” he said. They can’t even men­tion the words cli­mate change.’ It’s not going to be like­ly that they’re ever going to col­lect the data.”

Instead, the task of re-envi­sion­ing an agri­cul­tur­al mod­el that is more sus­tain­able is falling on the shoul­ders of indi­vid­ual farm­ers and agri­cul­tur­al businesses.

Mod­ern Ag Has Solved Some Prob­lems, Cre­at­ed Others

The UN report rec­og­nized the val­ue of mod­ern agri­cul­ture in feed­ing a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. It not­ed that meat sup­ply per capi­ta has dou­bled since 1961, with cere­al crop pro­duc­tion up 240 percent.

But it also point­ed out that a third of all food is wast­ed, accord­ing to the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Orga­ni­za­tion.

Increased food pro­duc­tion has had an envi­ron­men­tal toll.

Agri­cul­ture accounts for as much as 70% of fresh-water usage glob­al­ly and leads to greater soil ero­sion and defor­esta­tion. Open soil heats up faster and lacks car­bon cap­tur­ing plants.

Clay said that, as more land is con­vert­ed to farm­land, more mar­gin­al soils pro­duce less food per acre.

That sprawl is actu­al­ly a much big­ger threat to bio­di­ver­si­ty and ecosys­tems and cli­mate change,” he said.

Kevin Ful­ton, a cat­tle ranch­er and crop farmer who runs around 800 acres near Litch­field, Nebras­ka, said he’s found greater effi­cien­cy by scal­ing back the size of his oper­a­tion and intro­duc­ing sus­tain­able prac­tices like organ­ic farm­ing and grass-fed beef.

The ani­mals are the most impor­tant part of the equa­tion,” Ful­ton said. They have to be on the land­scape, not in some con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tion in a cor­ner, hav­ing all the feed hauled to them and hav­ing all the manure hauled back out. There’s just tremen­dous inef­fi­cien­cies in those kind of systems.”

Chang­ing Cli­mate May Look Dif­fer­ent Depend­ing on Where You Live

The UN report explained how cli­mate change will impact var­i­ous parts of the world, and not all are appar­ent­ly neg­a­tive. Areas near the equa­tor may see an expan­sion of desert-like con­di­tions, chal­leng­ing food pro­duc­tion. Fur­ther north may ini­tial­ly see an increase in grow­ing sea­sons and yields — a trend the U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency has also observed.

Those extra days in the field will include more extreme weath­er, like the 2019 grow­ing season.

Cli­mate change has already affect­ed food secu­ri­ty,” said the report. It warned of wild­fires, pest out­breaks, increas­es in rain­fall inten­si­ty, flood­ing, drought fre­quen­cy and sever­i­ty, heat stress, dry spells, wind, sea-lev­el rise and wave action, per­mafrost thaw.”

Kara Brew­er Boyd, who farms 1,300 acres around Baskerville, Vir­ginia, saw the volatil­i­ty of cli­mate change first-hand this spring. While flood­ing kept much of the Mid­west from plant­i­ng, drought kept her out of the fields.

The ground was just so hard, you couldn’t break ground to get things in it,” she said. In the fall, it’s inten­si­fied mois­ture from trop­i­cal storms — a phe­nom­e­non she said didn’t affect her area decades ago. There’s been times when we’ve actu­al­ly lost crop because it’s been too wet in the field, and we couldn’t get it out. It rotted.”

Accord­ing the the USDA Farm Ser­vice Agency’s August 12 report, farm­ers were unable to plant 19.4 mil­lion acres this year. That’s nine times the 1.8 mil­lion acres farm­ers left unplant­ed in 2018. For parts of the upper Mid­west and east coast, above aver­age mois­ture this fall could con­tin­ue to ham­per grow­ers as they pre­pare for harvest.

Rip­ple Effects

For parts of the world, the effects of cli­mate change aren’t 10 to 15 years away. They’re hap­pen­ing now.

The UN report said extreme weath­er will desta­bi­lize the food chain, lead­ing to high­er food prices and increased risk of food inse­cu­ri­ty and hunger. The most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple will be more severe­ly affected.”

The cost of food will like­ly go up for every­one. As the abil­i­ty to grow cer­tain crops changes around the world, the need for inter­na­tion­al trade will also increase, as peo­ple rely on food grown out­side of their region.

With­out trade, it’s going to be very hard to address food secu­ri­ty issues at a glob­al lev­el,” said Clay. There’s always going to be some places that are pro­duc­ing sur­plus­es, and many places that are pro­duc­ing at a deficit.”

He said com­bat­ive trade poli­cies like that between the U.S. and Chi­na will exac­er­bate food inse­cu­ri­ty at home and abroad. The report warns that, as the food sys­tem becomes less depend­able, the chang­ing cli­mate could also increase migra­tion of affect­ed populations.

Changes in cli­mate can ampli­fy envi­ron­men­tal­ly induced migra­tion both with­in coun­tries and across bor­ders,” the report said. Extreme weath­er and cli­mate or slow-onset events may lead to increased dis­place­ment, dis­rupt­ed food chains, threat­ened liveli­hoods, and con­tribute to exac­er­bat­ed stress­es for conflict.”

That strain will rip­ple across rur­al Amer­i­ca and low income com­mu­ni­ties, impact­ing near­ly every­one. A 2018 cli­mate assess­ment by the U.S. Glob­al Change Research Pro­gram explained that, in addi­tion to agri­cul­tur­al chal­lenges, high­er tem­per­a­tures will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact small­er com­mu­ni­ties, where access to health­care can be more chal­leng­ing as rur­al hos­pi­tals strug­gle to remain solvent.

Aging or insuf­fi­cient water sys­tems or telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions infra­struc­ture are more sus­cep­ti­ble to fail­ure because of extreme weath­er caused by cli­mate change.

Ag Solu­tions

There are farm­ers and agri­cul­ture busi­ness­es mak­ing efforts to low­er their car­bon footprints.

Bay­er Crop Sci­ence is pro­mot­ing cov­er crop adop­tion and Cargill recent­ly announced it would reduce green­house gas emis­sions by 30 per­cent in the next decade. The plan includes emis­sions-reduc­ing mea­sures at sev­er­al stages of the food pro­duc­tion process, includ­ing feed grain pro­duc­tion and reduc­ing food waste.

But Ful­ton said he wor­ries it’s not enough. By per­ma­nent­ly mov­ing his cat­tle from feed­lots to pas­tures, he said he’s able to dras­ti­cal­ly reduce the car­bon emis­sions his farm puts out.

Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture real­ly is the solu­tion to this,” he said. We see that car­bon seques­tra­tion far exceeds car­bon emis­sions on farms like mine.”

The ben­e­fits of small-scale ver­sus large agri­cul­tur­al oper­a­tions have been debat­ed at great length, and depend large­ly on how they are mea­sured. But Ful­ton said if reduc­ing cli­mate change is the mea­sure, more diverse farm­ing prac­tices are the best way to reduce green­house gasses.

I under­stand that there’s advan­tages to economies of scale and all that. But we need to look at how we mea­sure effi­cien­cies,” he said.

There is some polit­i­cal will to spur cli­mate change reduc­tion efforts in agriculture.

In August, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and New Jer­sey Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er announced leg­is­la­tion that will incen­tivize car­bon cap­ture on farms, through prac­tices like plant­i­ng cov­er crops, no-till farm­ing and plant­i­ng water­ways and con­ser­va­tion plots. The bill would also fund refor­esta­tion and restora­tion of wetlands.

Farmer sup­port for the Green New Deal is rel­a­tive­ly new. When the res­o­lu­tion came out in ear­ly 2019, sev­er­al state Farm Bureau orga­ni­za­tions crit­i­cized the move­ment as vague,” unre­al­is­tic” and over­ly crit­i­cal of ani­mal agri­cul­ture.

The new coali­tion back­ing the cli­mate change res­o­lu­tion is also advo­cat­ing for more agri­cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the Green New Deal.

We believe these cli­mate goals are achiev­able,” said the coalition’s let­ter to Con­gress. But only if the GND (Green New Deal) includes poli­cies that spur two large-scale tran­si­tions: the tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels toward renew­able ener­gy alter­na­tives, and the tran­si­tion away from indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture toward fam­i­ly farm-based organ­ic and regen­er­a­tive farm­ing and land-use prac­tices that improve soil health and draw down and sequester carbon.”

Bri­an Dun­can, a corn, soy­bean and hog farmer in North­east Illi­nois, said he’s always focused on con­ser­va­tion, but wor­ries stud­ies on cli­mate change such as the one from the Unit­ed Nations could lead to oner­ous reg­u­la­tions that sti­fle busi­ness with­out fix­ing the problem.

I, like oth­er farm­ers, in response to weath­er pat­terns, con­tin­ue to adopt con­ser­va­tion prac­tices because it’s the right thing to do,” said Duncan.

There’s some skep­ti­cism about cli­mate change among farm­ers, accord­ing to a 2012 study by Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty. But many are real­iz­ing that there are things they can do to be part of the cli­mate change solution.

Clay said there’s no easy solu­tion to reduc­ing emis­sions in the food sys­tem. Farm­ers can plant more trees and cov­er crops, but not at the rate forests and wet­lands are being plowed under in devel­op­ing coun­tries. They can prac­tice more sus­tain­able crop rota­tion, no-till farm­ing or restora­tive graz­ing for meat pro­duc­tion. But indi­vid­u­al­ly, these prac­tices won’t mit­i­gate cli­mate change.

None of these are suf­fi­cient by them­selves,” said Clay. What are the dif­fer­ent things you can do to add up to some­thing more meaningful?”

The Mid­west Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing is a non­prof­it, online news­room offer­ing inves­tiga­tive and enter­prise cov­er­age of agribusi­ness, Big Ag and relat­ed issues through data analy­sis, visu­al­iza­tions, in-depth reports and inter­ac­tive web tools. Vis­it us online at www​.inves​ti​gatemid​west​.org

Christo­pher Wall­jasper is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and audio pro­duc­er in Chica­go and across the Mid­west. He has cov­ered a vari­ety of issues, includ­ing rur­al Amer­i­ca, busi­ness, tech­nol­o­gy, real estate and nation­al security.
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