It’s the most wonderful time of the year and not just because the holidays are upon us. If you are working to fight climate change, like me, you know this is the “race to the end” for the busiest, most exciting period of time. A season that culminates with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 25, in Madrid, Spain.
It is at the COP where the important work of ensuring the commitments and goals of the Paris Accord are fulfilled. The foundations of these negotiations happen throughout the year. And with the Secretary General’s Climate Summit coinciding with the annual Climate Week activities, climate change has taken a very prominent place with this year’s UN General Assembly.
I recently had the privilege of attending my first Climate Week in New York, and left feeling energized, inspired by the passion and dedication of the thousands of citizens engaged in fighting the most pressing issue of our time. In particular, it was heartening to the young people of our world – led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg – and the sense of urgency they created with their global climate strike.
The theme for this year’s event was “Raising the Ambition” – a direct result of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ⁰C (SR15), which outlines the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. However, it was one comment overheard during the week that struck me most: There is a growing sentiment that farmers are just going to have to change.
As I walked the streets of Manhattan I thought to myself, “Well yes, farmers are going to have to change. But the point of all the work here is that we ALL must change if we are to succeed in halting the rush toward a warmer, destabilized world. That includes those of us who work in agriculture.”
Life as we know it on Earth is governed by a set of biophysical limits – or planetary boundaries. These limits define the conditions on which the Earth’s ecosystem can support a “safe zone” for our existence. Exceeding one or more of these boundaries may trigger sudden environmental changes that threaten the existence of our very ecosystem.
Recently, scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and colleagues have suggested that we have already exceeded the boundaries for climate change, biodiversity loss, and the nitrogen cycle. These limits all share a common factor: agriculture.
In short, agriculture is part of the problem. We have the responsibility to harness our natural systems and provide an adequate, nutritious food supply for all the people on Earth. At the same time, we must do it in a way that doesn’t wreck the place.
We are constantly looking for the ever-elusive win-win situation. With 820 million people suffering from food insecurity and our planetary boundaries being exceeded, we face the daunting task of turning the current lose-lose scenario into a sustainable ecosystem for all.
But the momentum of the last few months gives me hope that agriculture can be part of the solution. How do we make that happen?
We work together
Much of the ag sector is engaged in a battle over which systems are sustainable and which are harming the planet. We need to stop the in-fighting and arguing over “regenerative” and “industrial” and “organic” and “agroecology” and start focusing on sustainable agriculture practices. We spend so much time and effort trying to force a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex, dynamic, biological system. Instead, truly sustainable farming will be defined by the local ecosystem, considering both biological and sociological constraints. These systems need to be flexible enough to fit a variety of scenarios and we should support the appropriate development of each of those systems. What is sustainable for a large-scale farmer in the US corn belt can be quite different for a smallholder farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa.
We focus on the farmer
Too often the voice of the farmer is lost when discussing the future of agriculture. The Paris Accord mandates a just transition as one of its pillars and ignoring the voices and concerns of farmers is counter to this mandate. Creating a sustainable ag sector will only succeed if the women and men that grow our food are helping to create that system. Smallholder farmers especially need to have a seat at this table. These farmers produce a significant portion of the world’s food supply. Still, half of the people suffering from hunger today are smallholder farmers and their families. Sustainable food production means financially rewarding the farmers who spend their lives providing for society and protecting the planet.
We think holistically
There is renewed focus on agronomic practices such as no-till and cover crops that improve soil health and improve crop resilience. We must invest in expanding the adoption of these climate-smart practices. We should increase our focus on diverse crop rotations, intercropping, and other integrated systems that can help remove CO2 from the atmosphere, protecting biodiversity in the process. We should encourage the development and adoption of digital advances, improving agriculture’s impact on the environment. And we should develop the infrastructure needed to get these tools into the hands of all farmers.
Lastly, we should support and expand the use of modern modern crop improvement technologies such as gene editing and microbial seed treatments to a more diverse set of food crops with focus not only on increasing harvests, but also reducing food loss and improving nutritional properties.
There are many things that can be done to create a more sustainable agriculture – and this is just the short list. Agriculture can be part of the solution as we fight back against our world’s greatest challenge. We have the tools at our disposal today.
In New York, among thousands of citizens, youth, and leaders I saw the passion and desire. Now we must come together and get to work!