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In Climate Talks, Learn From the Real Climate Change Heroes

World leaders in Paris are in the midst of critical climate negotiations toward the first enforceable agreement in two decades. We hope that two giant questions—too often missed or downplayed—will be a focus:

  • Can our food system—now speeding climate change while leaving a quarter of humanity suffering nutritional deprivation—reverse course?

  • Instead of a climate curse, can our food system become part of the climate cure, while at the same time producing nutritious food that’s accessible to the world’s poorest people?

Big changes! But evidence of their possibility mounts. First, however, the big obstacles.

Our industrializing food system—from land to landfill—has become a big climate troublemaker, estimated to account for up to 29 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Most startling, these emissions are growing so fast that, if they continue at current rates, in thirty-five years those from our food system alone could nearly reach the safe target set for all greenhouse gas emissions.

To get a fix on how big the problem is, take in these fast facts:

  • Agriculture alone contributes nearly a fifth of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions; and industrial agriculture (that using manufactured inputs) releases two to three times more carbon dioxide per unit of land than does organic farming.

  • Since the industrial era began, humans have removed a third of the Earth’s carbon-absorbing forest cover largely to grow crops, a shift that can reduce soil carbon per unit of land by more than 40 percent. That’s an area roughly the size of South America. Increasingly, that land is growing feed or fuel, not the basic foods of the planet’s poor majorities.

  • Soils treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers hold about 30 percent less organic carbon compared to organically managed soils.

The current model of industrial agriculture—only about 70 years old—has already proven to be a dead end. But, by adopting ecological practices, farming would emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions and store more carbon.

And now to my second question—food accessibility for those who most need it? Ecological practices free farmers from expensive corporate-controlled inputs, so they especially benefit small-scale farmers and farmworkers, who also are the majority of hungry people. Some of these beneficial practices are:

Composting—returning to the soil decaying organic material from plant and animal wastes. Just one ton of organic material can result in storing almost 600 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Agroforestry —integrating trees on farms. It improves crop productivity and yields additional food and fodder from the trees. Globally, says the World Bank, among a range of ecological farming practices, “agroforestry by far has the highest sequestration potentials.” One study found that this approach in the EU, combined with other ecological farming practices, has the technical potential to sequester GHGs equivalent to 37 percent of its 2007 emissions.

Biochar—a form of charcoal generated by controlled smoldering of organic material, including waste, such as common weeds. Its efficacy varies widely, but biochar can increase the soil’s capacity to store carbon and enhance crop yields. Its estimated long-term carbon-sequestering capacity is huge.

Holistic livestock management—careful movement of herds to prevent overgrazing avoids carbon loss from bare soils. In Namibia, herders shifting to this method reduced soil degradation, improved soil-surface cover, and conserved water, concludes a report co-sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Planting multiple types of crops in the same field is another climate-saving farming practice. Together, and combined with afforestation and other earth-healing practices, these approaches could potentially sequester carbon equal to a fifth of global carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions annually, reports a leading world authority, Professor Rattan Lal of Ohio State University. Lal describes this big-picture possibility not just as technically feasible but as “attainable.”

Farmers helping to meet the climate challenge are also those addressing the roots of hunger.

  • In the West African country of Niger, small farmers have nurtured the regrowth of 200 million trees on 12.5 million acres, securing the food supply for 2.5 million people. Most of us don’t think “trees” when we think of food and hunger. But Trees help conquer hunger as they reduce soil loss, retain soil water content, and often provide fruit, nuts, and fodder.

  • In China, where many see only unmitigated ecological disaster, the government has worked with poor farmers on its north-central Loess Plateau to transform“moonscape”-like erosion in an area two-thirds the size of Massachusetts. In an area known for widespread hunger, small farmers limited destructive grazing, built wider terraces, and planted new fruit trees. Not only did the orchards flourish and crop yields increase by 60 percent, but incomes also more than doubled, all improving diets and spurring new schools, roads, and local enterprises.

  • In Rwanda, since independence in 1962 almost two-thirds of its forests have been wiped out. But visiting China’s Loess Project, Rwandan forestry officials were inspired. Rwanda has since committed to increasing its current forested area 50 percent by 2020. The country connects its fight to conquer hunger and poverty with its goal of reversing completely the degradation of the country’s soil, water, land, and forest resources by 2035.

  • In southern India, the state of Kerala, home to thirty million people, in 2010 officially declaredthe goal of becoming 100 percent organic within ten years. By 2013, fifteen thousand farmers were in the process of securing organic certification. Elsewhere in southern India, 5,000 women of the Deccan Development Society have created food security in 75 villages. Overall, in two southern India states, two million farmers are moving toward ecological practices.

These farmers—and others like them around the world—are both our real climate heroes as well as hunger-conquerors. May global climate talks embrace the immense contributions toward solutions to be found in remaking our food system. The result could be the inseparable advancement of food security, ecological health, and climate mitigation.

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