(The following column was written by Francesca Rheannon, managing editor of the Talkback for the Corporate Social Responsibility newswire.)
By Francesca Rheannon
Tis the season of farmers’ markets. Last week I moseyed on down to the Southampton (NY) farmers market and picked up some tasty, locally produced cheese that melted in my mouth with a delicious tang. But that local dairy farmer and others like him could become an endangered species if we continue on our current carbon-spewing energy path. Cows don’t produce much in very hot weather and scientists say that “heat stress and other factors could cause a decline in milk production of up to 20 percent or higher” in the Northeast under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. That’s a big deal: dairy is the largest agricultural sector in the region, producing some $3.6 billion dollars annually.
It’s a hundred humid degrees here as I sit here writing. The summer — and century — is still young. Here in the Northeast, we could be seeing 30 days or more of 100+ degree weather by mid-century or sooner. Summers like that will stress more than Bessie the Cow: possibly wiping out the apple harvest and “eventually leaving only a small portion of the Northeast with a viable maple sugar business.” The climate in New York State will be like that of Georgia now, bringing plagues of heat-loving insects and creating a profusion of weeds (among them bigger and stronger poison ivy.)
Agriculture isn’t just a victim of climate change; it’s a major cause of it, contributing 18% of all global carbon emissions. Half of that comes from a handful of agribusiness giants who are cutting down the rain forest to grow crops for biofuels or feed for cattle. The other half comes from industrial food practices like packing thousands of animals into CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations), where huge amounts of fossil fuels are used to feed, heat, and cool them; more emissions result from the giant “lagoons” of their waste. It adds up to more CO2 pollution than that given off by all modes of transportation put together.
It doesn’t have to be this way, says Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. I sat down with her recently to talk about her newest book, Diet for a Hot Planet. She’s on a campaign for a climate-friendly agriculture, one that learns from and works with nature, instead of pulverizing it with toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. (They’re not good for other growing things, either — like children.) One in three American children now have autism, allergies, ADHD or asthma, which many scientists are suggesting are at least partially due to toxics like growth hormones and pesticides.
And she doesn’t much trust the claims of some Big Ag companies that they promote “sustainability.” Lappé says we need to be careful how we define the term. She points to taxpayer subsidized “green credits” given to chicken processor Tyson Foods for using waste from CAFOs to produce biofuels. “If we count the full life cycle of the product in terms of fossil fuel use, in no way does it counter its carbon footprint,” she told me. “I’m all for creative ways of handling our waste, but should we be incentivizing production that is so wasteful with our tax dollars? Should we have CAFOs to begin with?”
In contrast, Anna Lappé showcases projects like the small-scale methane digester used by a small coop of local, organic farmers to produce energy and helping to build a more climate friendly food system along the way.
But, I asked her, can small, local organic agriculture really feed the planet’s teeming billions? “We have very good evidence now from studies looking at organic yields, that they are as good or better than those using industrial practices,” Lappé answered. Industrial agriculture means that over time, the soil becomes impacted and depleted of microorganisms; insects develop pesticide resistance; and we are getting high yields at a high price: costing us in water depletion, climate chaos, and topsoil loss. “That’s undermining our long term capacity to feed ourselves.”
Lappé says that while we need to understand the gravity of the crisis, we also need to transform our fear into energy for spreading climate-friendly practices throughout the food system. The practices aren’t necessarily new — only better. Take cows: Anna Lappé says they evolved to eat grass and turn it into high quality protein for humans, fertilizing the ground in manageable amounts with their manure. Going back to the pasture-based system helps to restore and regenerate the land, two principles of a climate-friendly agriculture.
Lappé lays out several ingredients of climate friendly farming. One is “nature-mentored,” using nature’s own wisdom to promote healthy production — like letting cows pasture on grass. The farmer no longer tries to impose her will on nature, but acts more as a population manager, bringing the right mix of insects, animals and plants together.
Lappé says that we also need to practice a resilient agriculture as we adapt to the inevitable disruptions of climate change. That means promoting diversity of crops and seed strains, as opposed to the tying up of nature into patented genetically modified seeds that make up so much of major monoculture crops like soybeans and corn.
In order to practice climate friendly farming, Lappé says we need to adopt long-term thinking over short-term profits — a lesson, it seems, that is being pounded into our heads during this time of financial meltdowns and spreading Gulf oil slicks.
But she has hope it can be accomplished. With her mother, Frances Moore Lappé, she went to India to talk to farmers who were fighting to stop the use of pesticides, patented seeds and chemical fertilizers that were bankrupting them (and driving many in their ranks to suicide-by-pesticide). She found inspiration in these poverty-stricken farmers who were enlivened by their collective organizing to renewed hope in creating a better future for themselves and their families. She learned then to understand hope in a radically new way, as “more verb than noun.” By taking action toward a climate friendly agriculture, stability, Lappé says, she’s finding herself becoming more hopeful that we can bring the planet’s climate back to stability.
(You can hear Francesca Rheannon’s interview with Anna Lappé on the radio show, Writers Voice.)