Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Agriculture and climate change

Like natural ecosystems, agriculture is tightly coupled with climatic conditions. Consequently climate change poses potentially severe threats to food security, but many discussions here are also pointing to agriculture as a potential part of a solution - especially when it comes to mitigating atmospheric carbon. This promise is seen with greater carbon sequestration in the agricultural landscape - particularly soils.

A common starting point for ag-related sessions at Copenhagen is the huge challenges facing agriculture in coming decades: the prospect of feeding as many as 3 billion more people globally (which agricultural policy has long anticipated) is now topped off with climate change impacts facing farmers, such as increased and new pests, water limitations, greater weather/climate variability (eg droughts), altered productivity/respiration, shifting stresses on livestock (eg greater summer heat mortality), and many more. These are on top of policies looking at agricultural land not only for food, but as a supplier of biofuels, not to mention finding space and time to conserve habitat and soil.

As one commentator here put it, it will be impossible to maximize food production, ecosystem services, biofuels - and now carbon sequestration, on the same acre. Improving on the current situation requires more optimal land use- driven mainly by better policies and institutions.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack arrived in Copenhagen today to announce his department's policy response to climate change - and in light of the immense challenges, it was remarkably timid. He used the opportunity to announce an agreement with dairy producers to make greater use of "cow power" - turning manure-based methane into electricity. Vilsack and the industry rep he appeared with touted the benefits as mitigation of carbon, decreased dependence on fossil fuels, and increased spending in rural communities. The president of the National Corn Growers Association, who also appeared, pointed out that at least on his farm, per bushel energy use ("carbon intensity," rather than absolute amounts, since yields have gone up simultaneously) has decreased over the past few decades due to technological change, and expressed hope that this trend would continue. The panel also noted that carbon credits are becoming a new farm commodity, bought and sold on the Chicago exchange, and likely to becoming an increasing source of income for American farmers as cap & trade-type legislation pushes forward.

Perhaps this is not surprising, but despite the clear distinction that the US delegation has been making about the new American commitment to tackling climate change under President Obama, the discussion led by Vilsack placed all the attention on voluntary measures and market incentives, continuing the hallmark of Bush (and prior)-era reaction to the challenges of climate change.

Farmers are going to be at the front line of climate change - and the people they feed right behind them. A variety of recent critics, such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, have pointed out that the system of American agricultural policies and institutions that has developed over the past few decades on an industrial/business (rather than ecological) model has led in some very problematic directions for farmers, eaters, and society in general. The proposals presented by Vlisack and the agricultural industry today seem focused mainly on mitigating the impacts of climate change on that agricultural model, rather than mitigating carbon, or more importantly, addressing how farmers can begin to implement strategies to cope with the growing risks they will face.

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