I’ve saved the absolute scariest issue for last.
Consensus seems to have been reached: climate change (aka global warming, aka global weirding) is “the problem” of environmental problems. Human-induced climate changes are on track to wreak havoc on civilization around the globe. From what we know, addressing climate change now will at best adjust how much havoc, and for whom. Scientists, activists, environmentalists, small island nations, and now even some of the most powerful players and economies in the world have all jumped aboard the “oh no, climate change” bandwagon. Naomi Klein’s 2014 book made it clear that—in terms of human tenure on the planet—“this changes everything”.
If we don’t change our patterns of consumption and energy use (in agriculture and other areas), greenhouse gas (GHG) levels will continue to rise in the atmosphere, with cascading effects. Glaciers are melting; sea level will continue to rise, flooding coastal areas. Climate disruptions will get fiercer and more frequent. Drought and flooding will increase. These, along with less consistent or reliable weather, are expected to cause more frequent crop failures.
Yet, at the same time, the collective “we” don’t seem to be changing our behaviors, as we know we must in order to mitigate and adapt to climate change. We aren’t reducing our emissions of greenhouse gasses. We aren’t investing full throttle in alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources and over-consumptive infrastructure. We certainly aren’t forcing fossil fuel companies to “keep it in the ground”. Most pertinent to this blog, and perhaps worst of all, we are accelerating our adoption of climate change causing—rather than climate change mitigating—agricultural patterns.
Agriculture contributes 12 to 50% of GHG emissions (depending on how and what you measure: including all the components as outlined in the first chapter gives a larger result). In production, there are various sources of greenhouse gasses emitted, mainly carbon and methane. Carbon is released from the soil regularly through tillage. Soil carbon is “volatile”, meaning it escapes easily from the soil if exposed to sun and wind. Tilling the soil, flipping it with disc plowing in many cases, does just that.
Animals involved in any kind of agriculture release methane: cows are an especially farty/burpy bunch, with sheep trailing behind but also doing their part. (Cows release an estimated 110 kilograms of methane yearly; in comparison, I release little methane per year.)
But it is the high concentration and number of animals in agriculture, and the lack of any form of capturing of their wastes or the methane gas that emerges from it, that is particularly problematic: “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (aka CAFOs) are huge producers of methane GHGs.
There is also major deforestation and intentional burning of forests, done for the purpose of clearing land to use for agriculture; Brazil used the be the paradigmatic case for this, but other countries (including Malaysia, Indonesia, Paraguay, and Laos but also Sweden and Portugal) have also taken up this habit. In the case of Indonesia, deforestation combines with the burning of peat bogs to make way for large-scale Oil Palm plantations. Oil Palm is used in many products, from food to industrial grease, but has been planted also to make biofuels. This makes it one the many so-called “flex crops”, which are particularly useful to capitalist investors since market outlets can be shifted according to the greatest profit potential.
The worst irony of all this is that biofuels are increasingly promoted under the premise that they will help to wean us from fossil fuels, yet so-called “first generation” (i.e. from starch, sugar, and animal/vegetable oils, e.g. corn, soy, sugarcane-based ethanol) biofuels have been found (if all factors of production are counted) to result in as much or more GHG emissions than they “save” by displacing fossil fuel use! Such biofuels take more calories to grow than we get out of them in useable energy; their production relies on fossil fuels to set up and maintain, and they are tied up in all the same problems of monocultures and habitat destruction we see in food-focused industrial agriculture. They also bring up (of course) important social questions involving impacts from land use conversions.
Clearly, if we’re going to address agriculture’s impact on climate change, it won’t be through biofuels (what some want to call “agrofuels” to make it sound less friendly), and it won’t be through technological tweaks to the large-scale industrial agricultural model.
Climate change requires that we fundamentally rethink what agriculture is for and how agriculture works.