How To Feed the World After Climate Change
Genetically modified seeds aren’t enough. We have to change the entire agricultural system.
Over the next 50 years, climate change will transform the world in ways we have only begun to imagine. Humans have changed the weather on this planet, and that will change everything, especially how we grow food.
Consider corn. The major crop (by volume) grown in the United States, corn does not reproduce at temperatures higher than 95 degrees. During the 20th century, Iowa experienced three straight days of 95 only once a decade. But by 2040, if greenhouse gas emissions remain on their current high trajectory, Iowa will experience three straight days of 95-degree heat in three summers out of four, professors Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University and Donald Wuebbles of the University of Illinois have calculated.
Meanwhile, global demand for food will be increasing. Human population is projected to swell to 9.3 billion by 2050. And as incomes rise in emerging economies, consumers will demand diets that require more resources—particularly meat.
John Beddington, the chief science adviser to the British government, has warned that by 2030 the interlocking trends of climate change, population growth, and resource scarcity may result in “major destabilization,” including street riots and mass migrations as people flee shortages of food and water.
But that nightmare scenario need not come to pass. We already know what works—and what doesn’t—to feed a post-climate-change world. In fact, many of the practices and technologies we need are already in use, in the United States and abroad.
What’s needed is to bring these isolated success stories to scale, to make them the rule rather than the exception. But that’s not an easy task when the agricultural approaches that actually improve people’s lives can be overshadowed by inferior alternatives propped up by large PR budgets or government support.
Take the argument that more heat- and drought-resistant seeds are what’s needed to cope with climate change. The good people at Monsanto have spent lots of advertising money to spread this message. And joined by two other high-profile backers of genetically modified organisms—the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Warren Buffet Foundation—Monsanto has claimed to have already increased corn yields in Africa by 25 percent to 35 percent. There’s a catch, though: The only documentation for those results was found on Monsanto’s own website and was later removed.
Most peer-reviewed research has found little reason for optimism that GMO seeds will revolutionize yields in the face of climate change. The most authoritative analysis is found in Agriculture at a Crossroads, the landmark report issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development in 2009. Testifying before Congress, Robert Watson, the scientist who directed the assessment, explained in the gentlest possible terms that GMO crops are an unproven technology whose benefits remain highly uncertain: “[I]t is likely to be several years at least before these [GMO] traits might reach possible commercial application [my emphasis].”
The currently dominant system of industrial agriculture is a loser on both fronts. It emits enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, partly because it consumes huge quantities of oil—to power farm equipment, manufacture fertilizer, and ship food through global networks. Meanwhile, its preference for monoculture rather than diversity makes it extremely vulnerable to hot and volatile weather, as well as to the uptick in pests and diseases such weather will bring.
More and more agricultural experts are saying we need a shift to ecological agriculture, sometimes known as agro-ecology. Ecological agriculture eschews applying chemical fertilizers to soil; rather, it favors compost and manure, which increase the soil’s fertility and ability to retain water—key advantages against hot, dry weather. And rather than monocultures, agro-ecology fosters a diverse agricultural landscape where nature’s processes are utilized not only to grow food but to maintain the health of the soil, water, and biodiversity that make agriculture possible in the first place.
In western Africa, for example, thousands of the poorest farmers on earth are capturing scarce rainfall and rejuvenating soil fertility by growing trees amid their fields of millet and sorghum. Despite enduring some of the hottest, driest weather on earth, these farmers have returned greenery to 12.5 million acres of land—enough to see from outer space, courtesy of satellite imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey. More important, underground water tables have been replenished, and crop yields have doubled and tripled.
Mixing forests and farmland is also being explored in China, where Lin Erda, a senior government scientist, has joined with Greenpeace to endorse ecological agriculture as the best way to cope with climate change. Raising ducks and fish in rice paddies, for example, reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and the need for chemical fertilizers; the fish decrease the methane that the paddies would otherwise emit, while the ducks control pests.
But how does ecological agriculture compare against industrial agriculture’s greatest strength—its ability to produce prodigious amounts of food? That’s a vital question on a planet where, even today, one in seven people goes hungry.
In Africa, extensive field studies show ecological agriculture matching the yields of conventional agriculture, while also boosting water supply and soil fertility. But Africa is a special case. Bypassed by the Green Revolution of the 1970s, it never got used to the inflated yields that industrial agriculture made possible.
In the United States and Europe, switching from industrial to ecological agriculture has invariably caused an initial decline in yields. However, after a brief transition period of three to five years, ecological agriculture’s yields rebound to equal those of industrial agriculture, according to a 30-year study conducted by the Rodale Institute.
And ecological agriculture’s advantages promise to be even greater under climate change. In drought years, Rodale found, its yields were 31 percent higher than conventional yields. Ecological agriculture also built rather than depleted soil fertility while recharging groundwater supplies. Finally, it produced 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases than industrial agriculture.
Is Cuba the future? What Cuba Can Teach Us About Food and Climate Change
After the Cold War, Cuba faced many of the agricultural challenges that the rest of the world is now anticipating.
...If you want to see what tomorrow’s fossil-fuel-free, climate-change-resilient, high-tech farming looks like, there are few places on earth like the Republic of Cuba.I previously wrote about Cuba here.
Under the Warsaw Pact, Cuba sent rum and sugar to the red side of the Iron Curtain. In exchange, it received food, oil, machinery, and as many petrochemicals as it could shake a stick at. From the Missile Crisis to the twilight of the Soviet Union, Cuba was one of the largest importers of agricultural chemicals in Latin America. But when the Iron Curtain fell, the supply lines were cut, and tractors rusted in the fields.
Unable to afford the fertilizers and pesticides that 20th-century agriculture had taken for granted, the country faced extreme weather events and a limit to the land and water it could use to grow food. The rest of the world will soon face many of the same problems: In the coming decade, according to the OECD, we’ll see higher fuel and fertilizer costs, more variable climate patterns, and limits to arable land that will drive cereal prices 20 percent higher and hike meat prices by 30 percent—and that’s just the beginning. Policymakers can find inspirational and salutary ideas about how to confront this crisis in Cuba, the reluctant laboratory for 21st-century agriculture.
Cuban officials faced the crisis clumsily. They didn’t know how to transform an economy geared toward sweetening Eastern Europe into one that could feed folk at home. Agronomists had been schooled in the virtues of large-scale industrial collective agriculture. When the “industrial” part became impossible, they insisted on yet more collectivization. The dramatic decline in crop production between 1990 and 1994, during which the average Cuban lost 20 pounds, was known as “the Special Period.” Cubans have a line in comedy as dark as their rum.
Cuban peasants proved more enterprising than the government and demanded change. First, they wanted control over land. The state had owned 79 percent of arable land, and most was run in state cooperatives. Initially the government refused to listen, but the depth of the crisis and the demands of organized farmers created some space for change. Through reform, the government decentralized farm management. The land remains in government hands, but now it is also available with “usufruct” rights to tenants, who can invest in the soil and pass the land onto their children.
But that took the farmers only so far. So some of the country’s agronomists, plant breeders, soil scientists, and hydrologists (Cuba has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists) found themselves being put to use by Cuban peasants in the fields. Their task: figure out how to farm without the fossil-fuel products upon which the country’s agricultural systems had become dependent.
With no fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide, and no means to import substitute chemicals, many in the scientific community landed on “agro-ecology.” To understand what agro-ecology is, it helps first to understand why today’s agriculture is called “industrial.” Modern farming turns fields into factories. Inorganic fertilizer adds nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to the soil; pesticides kill anything that crawls; herbicides nuke anything green and unwanted—all to create an assembly line that spits out a single crop. This is modern monoculture.
Agro-ecology uses nature’s far more complex systems to do the same thing more efficiently and without the chemistry set. Nitrogen-fixing beans are grown instead of inorganic fertilizer; flowers are used to attract beneficial insects to manage pests; weeds are crowded out with more intensive planting. The result is a sophisticated polyculture—that is, it produces many crops simultaneously, instead of just one.