Turning Up the Heat – Can Farming Do This?

December 5th, 2014 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on Turning Up the Heat – Can Farming Do This?

I’ve read a fair amount about the impact of climate change on farming and agriculture. There are basically two very different theories about how climate change might impact our agricultural system. One theory believes that the warming trend will actually benefit our food supply. The thinking goes something like this: warmer weather will make for a longer growing season, which in turn implies that more food will be produced. Additionally, more precipitation is expected with warming, so the plants will have plenty of water, and plants breathe CO2 (which is increased with global warming), so the plants will grow better and be stronger.

There are, of course, many scientists who don’t buy that theory at all. Their version of what will happen as climate change continues looks like this: If the temperature increases, and the precipitation increases then the rain will evaporate faster because of the heat. We would need an increase of more than 7% just to have the same amount of water available for use as we do today. Dramatic changes and fluctuations in the weather are expected as climate change persists, certainly compared to the weather of today. There will be periods of drought followed by periods of dramatic storms. A drought might occur when the plants have just sprouted up from the ground or a storm will come along just as wheat has formed some nice full heads. Survival for these crops will be difficult. Along with the storms there will be floods. The floods will wash the topsoil off of the fields into nearby creeks and rivers… and on and on. You get the picture.

As I read about climate change and agriculture, there is far less information out there talking about the reverse – how our current farming system impacts climate change. It’s well documented that a significant percentage of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Fossil fuel-intensive agriculture is contributing to the creation of the unpredictable weather conditions that all farmers will need to battle in the not-too-distant future. If you look at total oil supplies used for processing and packaging foods and for refrigerating and shipping them long distances, as well as, of course, growing them using petro-chemicals, it’s easy to see how the food industry consumes about 20% of all the oil used in the US. About 1% of the world’s annual energy usage goes into the production of fertilizers. This might not seem like much, but it ties the price of food to that of oil, and will make food prices shoot up once energy supplies start to dwindle. Figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that agricultural land use contributes 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Now there are some positive effects that agriculture has on climate change and the overall environment and these specifically come from using organic farming methods. Organic agriculture can remove from the air and sequester 7,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year. The Rodale Institute study showed that when properly executed, organic agriculture during times of drought or low water increases yield, since the additional carbon stored in soil helps it to hold more water. In wet years, the additional organic matter in the soil wicks water away from plant roots, limiting erosion and keeping plants in place.

The good news is that we can still change this. It’s not yet too late (although we are getting dangerously close). The more our food system moves towards organic farming practices, and the more our supply chain relies on local and regional food producers, the better chance we have. So, keep up the good work. What we do really does make a difference.