Agriculture and the global food and fibre system is the one industry that is most at risk from the challenges of climate change. To feed and clothe the increasing global population as rising atmospheric greenhouse gases cause extremes in weather patterns such as droughts, floods, cyclones and higher maximum day and night time temperatures is becoming more and more challenging. Agriculture is not exempt from the planet’s natural ecological systems though, and the industrial farming practices that have become commonplace are having a negative impact on the balance of greenhouse gas between the soil, ocean and atmosphere with agricultural emissions direct contribution sitting at 10-12% of global emission. These management practices include land clearing and deforestation, intensive animal agriculture and degradation and desertification of agricultural soils.
Throughout the history of agricultural, the need to increase productivity has led practices such as tillage and heavy grazing releasing stored carbon. This can be very effective in short doses to improve soils; however, the overuse of these practices and the gradual decline of soil carbon has led to reduced bio-diversity, poor water and landscape function, and eventually desertification.
Since World War II the use of synthetic fertiliser and chemicals, larger machinery creating more soil disturbance and larger scale monoculture cropping systems have sped up the reduction of soil carbon and the associated negative impacts. This has been particularly damaging to the soil microbiome where a complex economy works underground to trade mineral nutrients and stored water with sugars from plant roots produced through photosynthesis. These synergistic relationships provide food, air, water and shelter for the micro and macro flora and fauna in the soil and this diversity is vital to maintain healthy soils, retain and purify water and draw down carbon. The use of modern farming techniques disrupts these synergies and creates imbalances in mineral availability, water and carbon storage and the productivity of the soil.
The outcomes are that much of the food we now consume has a much lower nutrient value across many of the essential minerals compared to food from pre-war times. If we continue with these current practices there is a forecast of a 30% increase in agricultural emissions by 2050. As productivity of our soils has stalled more land is needed to produce food to feed the growing global population. Resulting in increased land clearing to meet this demand.
We now have unhealthy soils that are producing unhealthy food that is causing unhealthy people, while our landscapes are failing and the soil is unable to be the carbon sink needed to draw down atmospheric carbon.
The implication is that our agricultural production systems are unsustainable. However, this is not a problem for the farmer alone to fix as the consumer and food supply chain are also responsible. The demand for cheap food has culminated in food being devalued and one third of what is produced being lost or wasted along the supply chain. The other side of this is that due to pressures on production and distribution and with a forecast food calorie requirement of the global population set to increase by 60 % by 2050 this is a real risk of food insecurity in large parts of the globe. The take home message is that our current food system is broken and will not cope in its current form to feed the global population while reducing the nett contribution of greenhouse gasses to zero by 2050.
(to be continued)
*The author is a farmer near Perry Bridge and a member of Farmers for Climate Action