Precious Soils and Seeds - Industrial agriculture and climate smart farming

Field in the morning sun.
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The food that we eat plays a big role in the search for solutions to climate change.

The food that we eat plays a big role in the search for solutions. Agriculture is one of the major contributors to climate change. But the way we farm our land can also be a big part of the answer.


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Certain kinds of soil are huge carbon sinks, which means that they take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There’s more carbon in the soil than in all forests on the planet combined. Only the oceans store more. In this way, healthy soil can regulate the climate.

The kinds of crops we plant play another crucial role. They can help us adapt to changes in the climate that we cannot prevent. Farming diverse crops instead of monocultures makes us more resilient.

Every plant begins with a seed. The wheat for our bread, the cotton for our clothes, the maize we farm as animal food. Each year, farmers plant a myriad seeds on their fields. These different grasses, vegetables, and roots were once cultivated by our ancestors. But as farming practices are changing in many parts of the world, the diversity of the crops is at a risk.

"Well, I think we need to understand that agriculture has undergone a really dramatic shift in the last century," says Teresa Anderson.

Teresa works for Action Aid, an international NGO. Her specialty is Climate and Resilience:

"I mean we've seen a change in which agriculture that used to be based on local natural resources really changing to a system in which farmers are encouraged to buy all of their inputs. So now farmers are largely being told that they have to buy everything from their seeds to their fertilizers to their pesticides to their herbicides, even their tractors and fuel has all become part of this modern agricultural system. Whereas a century ago, these inputs weren't really seen as necessary for successful agriculture."

What Teresa is describing is the industrialization of agriculture. Human cultivation of food has always had side-effects. As people cut down forests and drained peat to make space for farming and animal breeding, soil often degraded. And with these changes carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere. But the rate of change in the past one hundred and fifty years has been especially fast.

We've seen this so-called Green Revolution be picked up pretty much across the world, of course, in Europe in the U.S., but also very much in countries in Asia and across a lot of Africa as well. So, for example we've been working in Malawi, with farmers in Malawi, and there the government has been subsidizing chemical fertilizers for many years. So now, small scale farmers who used to use more traditional techniques, have become quite used to buying and using chemical fertilizers as part of their standard practice. So, amid all this change, you know, this is being sold to us as increasing yields and increasing efficiency and increasing global food security. But there have been downsides, all this practice has taken its toll, not only on farmers’ ability to control their own agriculture, you know. Now they're told their own natural resources aren't enough that they need to purchase all these materials.

In many places, the soil is so degraded that it needs more nutrients. So mineral fertilizers such as nitrogen are applied to boost the plants and feed more people. But this comes with a whole set of side-effects. If you produce fertilizers, you need huge amounts of energy – so you emit a lot of carbon dioxide. When the nitrogen fertilizer is then applied to the land, the process produces another even more powerful greenhouse gas - nitrous oxide. Its heat-trapping ability is almost 300 times higher than that of CO2. And the problems don’t stop there.

"These chemical fertilizers that we're now increasingly using everywhere tend to kill microbes in the soil and fungi in the soil. And you know most of us don't realize that these microbes and fungi are absolutely essential to agriculture. We tend to be told that bacteria and fungi are really gross, but actually we wouldn't be able to eat without the bacteria and fungi that are in our soil. And unfortunately, the chemical fertilizers that we're applying tend to kill these off. That means we have less organic matter in the soil and this has a real major impact because actually this organic matter is really useful for holding water and rainfall in the soil. And this is becoming really key now in the face of climate change", says Teresa Anderson

It’s right there, under our feet: soil is one of the most precious resources we have on our planet. It’s a living substance that provides the basis for much of life on land. But it’s threatened. According to the UN, 30 football fields of arable soil are lost every minute. And most of this is due to industrial farming.

And while land is becoming scarcer and more degraded, more and more people need to be fed. Providing this nourishment is a question of justice. At the moment, the power to sell and allocate our food is shifting towards the hands of only a few. And a huge new challenge is on the horizon, threatening our farms and food security: climate change.

"We should now recognize that not only has agriculture had a big shift in the last century, but we're now in the middle of another big shift for agriculture that we need to deal with. And that is climate change. So, with climate change, as the Earth gets hotter, this is really disrupting the planet's water cycles. So, that means that farmers are having to cope with really different rainfall patterns. You know, in many parts of the world you could always know that the rain was coming on the 15th of October every year without fail, it always came and lasted two and a half months. And agricultural systems were developed in order to expect and rely on this kind of rainfall. But nowadays with these disrupted water cycles farmers never know when the rain is coming from one month or year to the next. So, the rainy season might come early, it might come late, it might not come at all, it might get too much rain, we might get too little rain, temperatures might be too hot, too cold. So really, our farming systems are very much disrupted now by climate change. And the industrial system that the planet has actually got hooked on in these last decades is really very vulnerable, because it relies on regular rainfall and it relies on being able to promise that the crops are going to get a large amount of water at a certain amount of time", says Teresa Anderson

This means, agriculture and climate are closely tied together. So the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, has started using a new concept: “climate smart agriculture.” The idea behind it is promoting better farming practices around the globe. But it might actually do the opposite.

We talked about this with Mariann Bassey Orovwuje, an environmental activist in Nigeria. She coordinates the program on food sovereignty for the NGO Friends of the Earth there:

"Basically, it's the industry that's been coming up with an array of terminologies and terms. We have so many reasons to be suspicious and worried about this terminology and approach. It really has nothing to offer. It's more chemicals, monoculture, centralization, global market expansion for carbon. I think the term was hijacked."

Mariann tells us about an incident of a farmer who came to her office. He told her a story that made her suspicious of activities of the agriculture industry:

"A farmer called me and told me that he wanted to see me, that some people gave him some seeds. And he wanted to find out if the seeds are okay for him to plant, and what they do to the environment, our soils, and the health of the people. So, I asked him, who gave you these seeds, could you find out, go back and find out, who this person is and where these seeds are coming from? And he said, he went back and came back to tell me, he said they are premier seeds. And I said, what did they tell you about the seeds? He said, they should grow them after the first rains and come for the seeds again in the next planting season."

Traditionally, farmers harvest their seeds from their plants at the end of the season. They save some for next year and trade some amongst each other. Traditionally, they have been independent of seed companies, and preserve unique local species. Many of these are adapted perfectly to cope with local weather extremes like droughts or floods. But now it looks like seed companies are trying to promote new varieties of crops.

We ask Teresa Anderson what she makes of this story:

"I don't know exactly what kind of seed that is, but one suspects that…the trick used by companies in every product around the world, you know, giving free samples in order to get you hooked, and that is a key strategy for the survival of industrial agriculture. Making you dependent on a product that you need to buy, year after year. It's no good to them, if you take the seed and, thank you very much, and go away and save it and then never need to come back to them again. They want to make sure that you're coming back to them every season so that they can expand their profits. And this is the model of industrial agriculture. But if we're buying our seeds from a company every year that means we stop growing and adapting our own local seed diversity. And that means as a result of this, seed diversity, agricultural diversity around the planet is disappearing, because farmers are being encouraged to abandon their own local varieties and use industrial varieties instead. And this means in the face of climate change, they have less diversity to rely on."

So, having a wide variety of seeds at your disposal is an important tool to adapt to a changing climate. But many farmers grow only one or just a few varieties of crops. In the case of small-scale farmers, this has to do with the market. They rely on one cash crop, but if there’s a blight, or pathogen, they might lose all. In the case of large-scale farming, hundreds of hectares are covered with monocultures and mostly exported. In both scenarios, less diversity makes farmers vulnerable.

With changes in temperatures and rainfall, and extreme weather events, some crops might fail. In the face of a shifting climate, this is a weakness.

So being “climate smart” in agriculture is important. But unfortunately, the label is now being used everywhere.

"Pretty much anything can be called climate smart agriculture and there's nobody to tell them, you know, that they can't. So corporations you know industrial agriculture corporations, the very worst offenders have jumped on this bandwagon and are using the term climate smart agriculture to define their own practices. You know, so that they can carry on business as usual. So Monsanto, which is the world's largest producer of genetically modified organisms, GMOs, is now telling the world that they are climate smart. Yara, which is the world's largest fertilizer company is telling the world that they are climate smart, even McDonald's which produce two percent of the world's beef, claim that they are using climate smart practices. And the reason these corporations are able to use this term is they can claim that by making slight tweaks to their systems, perhaps through efficiency gains, they are now being climate smart. But if they use that branding in order to expand their businesses and overtake other systems, then they are increasing the emissions overall which is of no value to the planet", Teresa Anderson                

Speaking of Fast Food chains: industrial meat production also has major impacts on soil, land, biodiversity and the climate. Many millions of tons of meat are consumed every year, mainly in industrialized countries. And the cattle, pigs and chicken need to be fed. So, soy and other crops are grown in vast GMO-monocultures, which need a lot of fertilizers and pesticides. According to estimates by the FAO, around three quarters of the world’s arable land is directly or indirectly used for producing foodstuffs. This leads to tremendous changes in land use and leads to deforestation and soil degradation. Combined with the extensive use of fertilizer and pesticide, this results in a huge amount of climate damaging gases.

Many civil society and farming groups have come out in opposition to the term “climate smart agriculture” as a gateway for greenwashing and are in fact opposing industrial agriculture all together. Instead, they are promoting another idea: Agroecology.What we find now is that using agro-ecological practices, which is a little bit like organic agriculture, but particularly useful for small scale farmers in changing practices away from these chemical inputs and remembering that local natural resources can actually provide pretty much everything that you need in order to grow crops and survive. So, now we're working with farmers and training them to use these agro-ecological techniques such as composting, putting manure, putting mulching which is like maybe using grasses or fiber materials to cover the soil. And this really, all of this actually helps to keep water in the soil, it acts as a carpet, so that the water doesn't evaporate. And also to build up organic matter in the soil which is full of nutrients as well. So, you don't even need the chemical fertilizers.

Together with her organization Action Aid, Teresa has helped spread the word about the principles of agro-ecology. The results have been good, and have convinced farmers to continue working with this approach:

"We've worked with farmers in Malawi for example who have been told for many years that they need to be using chemical fertilizers. You know, we train them in how to use composting and how to apply mulches. And they tried these techniques just within these last couple of years and well 2015/2016, saw a major drought across the world caused by El Nino. So there was very little rain. But farmers that we work with reported that because they had put compost and mulch on their soil, when the rains came the water didn't evaporate from their soil very quickly. So, they were able to harvest a normal crop, whereas other farmers, say you know could be farmers in the same village who didn't use those techniques got maybe a third of their normal harvest because there was so little rainfall. So those farmers that we've worked with have been completely convinced that they need to start using these agro ecological techniques to build up their soil, because that is really going to give them the resilience they need in the face of climate change."

Agroecology does not attempt to offer standard solutions, or the one right way of doing things. Instead, it encourages farmers to share their knowledge to find crowd-sourced solutions beyond the industrial model. And in many cases, the knowledge is already at hand, says Mariann Bassey Orovwuje:

"Our local people know how to farm with small healthy farms, small hectares, and with diverse crops. You know when the rain is coming, you know how the leaves are going to fall, you plant a tree, it falls there, you use the cows in the farm. It's everything, it's a cycle. It's harmony. And farmers have the solutions. I mean, someone who grows okra, maize, cassava, on the same farms, provides food security. That is like I see, working with nature, working with the soil, working with the plants."

Small scale farmers provide 70 percent of our food. Around the world, they are coming together to share practices and ideas for farming that benefits all. This includes local communities and their food security, the environment and its biodiversity, and the climate. They are re-discovering older techniques like planting crops together with plants that attract or push away unwanted critters and weeds. This way you don’t need to spray the fields with pesticides or herbicides that threaten bees and other pollinators.

Farmers are also developing new approaches, like a system called rice intensification, SRI for short. The technique has already revolutionized the field by introducing new ideas and principles globally. The approach has substantially raised both the yields and the farmers’ income. It also preserves biodiversity and reduces water use as well as costs.

And more and more ideas like these are being developed by farmers themselves.

"With agroecology, the farmers use what's already in nature. Like, they don't put in chemicals, they use the manure from the trees, the leaves that decay, they use different techniques that are already in the land. They grow different crops. Crops that can provide water for the crops. It's a holistic way of growing. People can have different things. You can go to your neighbor and borrow seeds, your neighbor can come to you. You can save, you can try many things by working with nature, not against, we are embracing diversity", says Mariann Bassey.                                                                        

In many places, farmers and clients are now also working together more closely than before. This community-supported-agriculture circumvents big players in the middle like supermarkets and food companies. It provides healthy and seasonal food for the clients, and a stable income to organic farmers.

To Mariann, the adoption of agroecology is the way to go. But the transformation towards it needs political and financial support:

"I think there are other things we can also do, and our government could also do – reorientation of policies and funding, and take a look at research priorities, away from this dominant agricultural industrial model to agroecology. Why should businessmen who sit in their offices, tell Nigerian farmers what to do? It's not their job, it's not their business, telling us how to grow our crops, how to lace our crops with chemicals, making us more sick, degrading our soils, polluting our environment and releasing more chemicals into the wa(ter). I think there are very clear answers, the solution is agroecology, (agroecology is) farming that is in harmony with nature."

While claiming to feed the world, industrial agriculture threatens our soils, biodiversity and environment. And it has clearly reached its limits. In many places, the harvest doesn’t grow anymore, despite heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

On the other hand, farmers around the world have gathered a deep knowledge over generations. They know what to grow, and how to grow it best. Agroecology encourages them to build on this knowledge and share their practices for a better climate for everyone.

As you can see, soil is more than just brown dirt. It’s a precious resource providing fertile ground for the food we grow. It can hold massive amounts of carbon – more than all forests combined. And it helps us to adapt to the climate change already happening.

So taking good care of our soil, making sure it is healthy and alive is absolutely critical. The same goes for the diversity of crops we plant and eat. And for this, we need to re-define the way we farm –  pivoting away from industrial farming to agroecology.