Farmers are on the frontline of climate change


According to a new United Nations climate report release last week, agricultural practices and people’s diets will need to change as rising temperatures diminish the earth’s ability to absorb dangerous emissions. UN panel calls for changes to farming, diets to stave off climate change:

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on Thursday lays out the stark choices world leaders will face in balancing their food supply with the need for more carbon-absorbing plant life to combat worsening climate change.

“We are currently getting a free subsidy from nature,” Louis Verchot, one of the report authors, said of the earth’s ability to absorb carbon emissions in plants and soil. “But that subsidy could very easily be lost if we continue on current trajectories.”
A summary of the 1,300 page report, which calls for a change in how land is used across the globe, highlights the heavy-handed role farming and forestry play in contributing to climate change. Both industries contribute a combined 23 percent of all human-linked greenhouse gas emissions globally.

The IPCC report was compiled by 107 experts from 52 countries and written cumulatively by 96 contributing authors.

The report says changing land use to reduce emissions will be key in keeping global temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — something the IPCC has previously identified as a turning point in the battle against climate change.

“Prompt action on climate mitigation and adaptation aligned with sustainable land management and sustainable development depending on the region could reduce the risk to millions of people from climate extremes, desertification, land degradation and food and livelihood insecurity,” the report states, suggesting that if changes occur now, much could be helped.

But if changes in the agriculture sector are deferred, scientists said it could lead “to significantly higher costs.”

A major cause of emissions, and one the authors say individuals could lend a hand in changing, is meat-heavy diets. According to the report, meat contributes to climate change, along with deforestation, transportation of agricultural products and even food waste.

“Diets present a major opportunity for reducing greenhouse gasses as well, because diets that are rich in plant-based foods emit lower greenhouse gas emissions than diets that are very heavy in red meat consumption,” Cynthia Rosenzweig, one of the report’s authors, said in a call with reporters.

She said diets that include more plants, nuts and seeds present a “double benefit” as they are healthier for humans and the environment. The report found that balanced diets such as those that incorporate coarse grains, fruits, and vegetables in addition to animal-sourced foods are more globally sustaining.

Land management is already a contentious issue for leaders who balance development of resources with preserving natural landscapes, but climate change is likely to increase such tensions.

The report warns that as the global climate gets warmer, food scarcity will also grow.

“The stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases,” the report said, leading to an increase in the price of food.

The report also notes that rising temperatures are depleting the nutrition in food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently buried a report from one of its scientists that found carbon was responsible for reducing the nutritional value of rice.

Rosenzweig said those factors could lead to a “multi-breadbasket failure.”

Samuel Meyers adds at the Washington Post, Climate change is sapping nutrients from our food — and it could become a global crisis:

The mechanism by which rising carbon dioxide saps nutrients from our food crops remains somewhat unclear, but the effect is consistent across most plant types from trees to grasses to edible crops: It is reducing the availability of zinc, iron, protein and key vitamins in wheat, rice and several other fundamental grains and legumes.

The implications are huge: By 2050, hundreds of millions of people could slip below the minimum thresholds of these nutrients needed for good health, and more than 2 billion already deficient could see their conditions worsen. And it extends well beyond human nutrition as every animal in the biosphere depends, directly or indirectly, on plant consumption for nutrients.

* * *

Nutritional deficiencies continue to take a heavy toll. Zinc deficiency affects the immune system and increases vulnerability to malaria, lung infections and deadly diarrheal diseases, claiming the lives of some 30,000 children younger than 5 each year. Protein deficiency causes stunting and increases infant mortality. Iron deficiency is linked to nearly 60,000 deaths and 34 million “life years” lost to disability or premature death every year, and can also result in decreased work capacity, reduced IQ and anemia.

Humans are deeply vulnerable to reductions in the nutrient content of staple food crops. We get 60 percent of dietary protein, 80 percent of iron and 70 percent of zinc requirements from plants, most of which are losing these nutrients in response to rising carbon dioxide levels.

Research I have co-written indicates that as a result of these emissions, nearly 2 percent of the global population — an extra 175 million people — could become zinc-deficient, and 122 million would no longer get enough protein. Some 1.4 billion women and children younger than 5 would find their iron intake reduced by 4 percent or more. Half a billion in this group risk developing iron-deficiency-related disease.

By 2050, the vitamin B content of rice is expected to drop 17 to 30 percent, upping the risk of deficiencies in folate (B9), thiamine (B1) and riboflavin (B2) for tens of millions of people, especially in regions dependent on rice. All these vitamins are crucial for normal and healthy development.

The report’s authors said changes to the agricultural industry need to be accompanied by other efforts to better manage land such as planting trees, utilizing more cover crops that capturing carbon and focusing on carbon rich soils, as well as restoring natural habitat.

“We have sustainable forest management, we have sustainable water resources management, sustainable soil management. But the general idea is that we are protecting the productive capacity and the quality and the integrity of landscapes,” Verchot said.

Conservation groups hailed the report.

“This new report makes clear that our Earth’s natural systems are key, along with getting off fossil fuels, to reducing dangerous climate pollution. We must move quickly to transform the way we produce and consume food and to protect and restore natural ecosystems like forests,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz with the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement.

Agriculture is increasingly becoming a focus of the climate debate in the U.S. The economic sector contributes 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sen.Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 hopeful, released a plan Wednesday focused in part on decarbonizing the agricultural sector. She joins Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Vice President Joe Biden in including agriculture in their climate action plans. Many candidates have suggested that cutting emissions should start in rural areas and on farm lands with the need to invest further in carbon capturing soils and regenerative farming practices.

In September, the IPCC is scheduled to release its third report this year focused on the links between the ocean, cryosphere and changing climate.

As Samuel Meyers concludes, “The bottom line is frighteningly clear: Unless governments dramatically step up their emissions-reduction efforts, nutritional deficiencies and their associated burdens are set to become even more severe and widespread. We cannot wait to act any longer.

“Many farmers probably haven’t read the new report from the United Nations warning of threats to the global food supply from climate change and land misuse.”  But as Alano Sano, owner and operator of Sano Farms, writes at the New York Times, Farmers Don’t Need to Read the Science. We Are Living It.

Here in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, there’s not much debate anymore that the climate is changing. The drought of recent years made it hard to ignore; we had limited surface water for irrigation, and the groundwater was so depleted that land sank right under our feet.

Temperatures in nearby Fresno rose to 100 degrees or above on 15 days last month, which was the hottest month worldwide on record, following the hottest June ever. (The previous July, temperatures reached at least 100 degrees on 26 consecutive days, surpassing the record of 22 days in 2005.) The heat is hard to ignore when you and your crew are trying to fix a broken tractor or harvest tomatoes under a blazing sun. As the world heats up, so do our soils, making it harder to get thirsty plants the water they need.

The valley’s characteristic winter tule fog is also disappearing, and winters are getting warmer. Yields of many stone fruits and nuts that feed the country are declining because the trees require cool winters and those fogs trap cool air in the valley. Warm winters also threaten the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides 30 percent of California’s water. We had a good wet winter this year, but a few years ago the snowpack was at its lowest level in 500 years. We also worry that last year’s record California wildfires, which blanketed the valley with smoke for weeks, might become the new normal. I don’t get sick much, but that summer I had a hard time breathing because of the congestion in my lungs.

The latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforces our anxiety. It warns of declines in food yields, instability in food supplies, increased soil erosion and threats to water availability in coming decades. The global food supply system is a big contributor of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, the report added. As The Times reported on Thursday, without “action on a sweeping scale” the warming climate will intensify “the world’s droughts, flooding, heat waves, wildfires and other weather patterns” and speed up “the rate of soil loss and land degradation.”

The good news is that farmers can be part of the solution … We try to take great care of our soil’s health, and we keep learning how to do it better. A living soil with lots of organic matter absorbs and holds more water and nutrients, retains more topsoil and grows healthier plants that survive increasing pressures from pests and diseases.

After harvesting our fall crops, we now use cover crops that return carbon and nitrogen to the soil and nourish the microbes and fungi essential for a living soil ecology. The plants and soil organisms work together to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and draw it down into the root zone. We minimize disturbance of our land by decreasing tillage, which protects these microorganisms and keeps carbon in the soil, where it belongs. Rather than being a source of carbon emissions, farms could store carbon where it’s needed to grow food.

This has been good for our business, too. We spend less on water, energy and fertilizer and are getting good yields.

We and other farmers here are constantly experimenting with new approaches to keep soils healthy. We’re part of a work group at the University of California, Davis, Cooperative Extension, where we learn about the science and share successes and failures with other farmers. Research and education like this are essential for farmers who are too busy growing food to keep up with the latest science and technologies.

The science is clear that the challenges facing agriculture will only become more difficult, and in unpredictable ways. Farmers will need more financial incentives to adopt practices that encourage healthy soils and water conservation, like government grants or cost-sharing arrangements. That kind of support would lower the barriers of cost and risk that farmers now face in trying new, climate-friendly ways of farming. With state-of-the-art science, innovation and sound public policy, farmers here and elsewhere in the United States can work to make sure this latest dire warning about the warming planet does not become self-fulfilling.

Instead of paying farmers GOP socialism bailouts (or bribe money if you prefer) to keep them voting for Donald Trump as he financially ruins America’s farmers with his trade war, 9 in 10 counties that voted for Trump have received subsidies to fight the trade war, this money would be better spent, as Mr. Sano says, on financial incentives to adopt practices that encourage healthy soils and water conservation, and climate-friendly ways of farming. Get something of value in return, instead of just buying votes.