When nations recognized the need to mitigate climate change by finding ways to reduce carbon emissions, emissions from the agriculture sector were not readily considered a priority. In fact, some claim that parties intentionally kept agriculture off the negotiating table in terms of mitigation because… well, everyone needs food. Furthermore, global population growth and a shortage in food security for some due to climate change would require that global food output increase. With the advent of GMOs and global transport, supplying food to vulnerable populations seemed the obvious answer. And because mitigation played such a prominent role in the UNFCCC Conference of Parties’ negotiations initially, the need for adaptation in our food systems was not of paramount concern.
But the emissions from the agriculture sector can no longer be ignored, nor can the need for farming practices to adapt to the coming changes. According to the U.S. EPA, the United States’ agricultural sector contributes 9 percent to its total GHG emissions. Globally, emissions from agriculture comprise upwards of 13 percent of total emissions. And if an increase in industrial food production is necessary because of population growth and decreased food security, these emission figures can be expected to rise. Additionally, food systems will need to adapt to extreme weather events, desertification, decreased precipitation, and an increasing influx of parasites and disease. Is there a way for our food systems to mitigate and adapt to climate change simultaneously thereby enhancing global food security?
By localizing food production, food sovereignty is effectively placed in the hands of indigenous cultures and small farmers who naturally farm in ways that produce less emissions. For example, indigenous practices do not include the use of industrial fertilizers that continuously contribute to nitrous oxide emissions- a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent that carbon dioxide. Small scale farming practices also negate the need for large land-use changes like deforestation and forest degradation which remove vital carbon sinks and greatly contribute to carbon emissions.
Keeping food systems local also allows farmers to adapt to our changing climate in a localized manner. There is no person who knows better the changes required for a particular location than the farmer who has seen the climate and precipitation patterns change. Unfortunately, national policies to adapt to climate change often disregard indigenous knowledge because of the firm belief that science is the best solution. As such, industrial agriculture greatly focuses on genetic modification, increasing soil fertility via chemical fertilizers, and managing pest and disease infestation through the use of pesticides. Yet, indigenous systems have proven to be resilient due to growing a diversity of food crops, incorporating biological pest management, crop rotation and selective weed management practices. The nuances of these practices will surely need to change with the climate. But the point is that they can and they will- without the need for increased emissions. What better way is there to both mitigate and adapt to climate change while keeping people fed?