Climate Change and the Challenge to All Forms of Agriculture

We´ve all heard of climate change and probably understand the basics of how excess greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide produced by our society´s burning of fossil fuels is causing the earth´s temperature to rise. We´ve most likely seen maps of what the world will look like when the glaciers and icebergs melt causing the ocean to rise and most of us probably accept that it is a danger to our civilization.

For most people, however, we suffer from a cognitive dissonance that doesn´t allow us to make meaningful changes to our way of life-based on the knowledge that we have. Though the reports and predictions by climate scientists are certainly frightening, they seem like far away and distant possibilities. The 1-2 degrees of temperature change sure don´t feel that extreme, especially as we relax in our air-conditioned homes or drive to work in our air-conditioned cars.

In case you haven´t heard enough of the doomsday facts and figures, here are a few more figures from NASA to put into perspective how far climate change has advanced:

– The loss of ice in Greenland has doubled between 1996 and 2005.
– The ice cover in the Arctic decreases by 13.4% every decade.
– 9 of the 10 warmest years have occurred since the year 2000.
– Carbon dioxide levels in the air are at their highest level in 650,000 years.
– The sea will rise between 7 and 23 inches by the end of this century.

Over 100 million people who live in coastal areas will purportedly be affected by the rising sea levels caused by global warming leading to a serious demographic crisis of climate refugees.

Despite this wealth of harrowing information, very few people have been inspired to act. Dozens of international climate change conferences have resulted in mediocre, toothless agreements that do nothing to force countries to cut back on fossil fuel consumption. The health of the industrial growth economy trumps all other concerns, even that of our long-term survival.

Feedback loops

One of the scariest things about climate change are the feedback loops that will spur on more climate change even if humanity were to get its act together and put real limits on carbon emissions. Simply put, we can´t avoid the effects of climate change anymore, but rather need to find ways to adapt to the effects that are already occurring (Hurricane Irma, for example) while radically minimizing our carbon emissions to limit (as much as possible) the feedback loops that are put into action.

The carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that we´ve released into the air will stay there for years on end. Even if we were to miraculously cut out using all fossil fuels tomorrow, the effects of climate change will still be felt in the coming decades.

One positive feedback loop related to climate change has to do with the loss of ice. Ice is white and when the sun entering the earth´s atmosphere hits the ice, the white color reflects the light instead of absorbing it. As the ice melts, it reveals the darker colored land or ocean water below it and that same light is now absorbed instead of reflected thus causing the temperature to rise and more ice to melt.

Similarly, the rising temperatures that are causing the Arctic ice and permafrost to melt will eventually unlock billions of tons of methane gas that is stored under the ice in the Arctic regions of our world. Methane causes more global warming than carbon dioxide and as that gas is released it will only speed up the process of climate change in a vicious cycle.

Rising Temperatures and the Uncertainty of Agriculture

Billions of small farmers around the world depend on the constancy of the seasons to grow the crops that feed their families. Traditional, ecological knowledge of indigenous and peasant cultures is often tied to this historic, ancestral observation of the cycles of nature and how humans can adapt to that cycle in order to survive and thrive.

Global warming, however, causes vast changes not only in the temperature but also in the constancy of the seasons. Billions of farmers can no longer plan to plant their seed during a certain time of year as they´ve done for generations because the beginning of the rainy season is impossible to predict nowadays. Prolonged droughts and more serious monsoons and heavy rains also cause huge losses in agriculture thus threatening the livelihoods of billions of people. Even industrial agriculture depends on the rain, and huge crop losses are today considered to be a normal part of the profession.

Similarly, the rising temperatures across the earth´s surface also threaten to increase problems with pests, bugs, malignant fungi, and other problems to farmers. Warmer temperatures could lead to a wider range of habitat for several different types of pests that in theory could lead to a loss of crop yields. Rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns coupled with a growing world population is not exactly a recipe for success for feeding the world.

Nonetheless, the excess amount of carbon in our atmosphere also provides a unique opportunity for the transformation of our agricultural system. Plants “eat” carbon dioxide, and by planting perennial species across our landscapes, we could help to draw down the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and store in the increasingly fertile layer of biomass and humus-rich soil. This, of course, depends on us changing from an annual-based agriculture that depends on yearly tilling of the soil, to a perennial, no-till form of agriculture.

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5 thoughts on “Climate Change and the Challenge to All Forms of Agriculture

  1. Excellent post. I somehow ended up here (searching for information on cultivating figs) and I was surprised (yet glad) to see someone who clearly understands and truly perceives the great dangers we are facing with (immediate) climate change. My personal thoughts have been that we (as a species) will starve well before we drown — there’s just not enough understanding that these (giant) changes we’re making in our weather systems are bound to have some catastrophic effect on agriculture well before we have to worry about our cities being flooded. Also, thanks for the astute observation on the “cognitive dissonance” we are now facing due to air conditioned houses and cars — I tell the folks who will listen that we humans have essentially built our own, self-contained climate bubbles, going from the modern equivalent of a climate controlled cave (home), to a mobile climate controlled cave (the car), to the other climate controlled cave (work), with stops at other climate controlled caves (shopping, the mall, etc.) along the way — all the time cutting us off from connecting with what’s really going on with the global climate . Anyway, thanks!!!

  2. Thanks Ben for the encouragement. I agree, we need to get out of the caves that define our lives and find ways to interact with the real world in order to discover what really is going on in the world we live in.

  3. Feedback loop? I live in northeastern France, in a region which is particularly prone to late frost in spring. This year was a very delicate one for all orchardists. Production was cut by half if the orchard couldn’t be protected from severe late frosts on fruit trees in full bloom. Quite a few orchard growers (even organic) have been burning cords of wood or piles of straw bales to prevent most flowers from suffering frost damage during one or two critical nights. The yields of many fruit trees, including nuts and chestnuts, have been cut by half…even in southern France. Including more useful and edible perennials within ever more functional ecosystems is definitely the way forward but by no means a guarantee of survival for exponential population growth. So far there’s more than enough food, it’s just either mostly wasted or not evenly or fairly distributed. Our current success (and survival) is all done thanks to good old petroleum. Take out good old diesel fuel and not many people will have enough to eat, let alone survive. The real emergency now is training people from a very early age for a wide range of real, first-hand, applied combination of survival, perma skills and hope for the Best!! Tipping point is very near! Yep;-)

  4. I live in the west of Scotland and have noticed a difference in my fields. They are designated less favoured areas, so are not prime farm land but we graze cattle and sheep and take a cut of silage. There are now rushes growing in amongst the grass which shows how wet and poor the soil has become. Our rainfall has increased and in winter the ground is saturated for longer and lately the summers have been poor , again wet, with not as much sun as we used to get. This year hay has been impossible and some farmers have not even got one cut of silage. I have been here for over 40 years and we are going to have to rethink our land management. Global warming is happening and it’s not going to be pretty.

  5. I’m a biologist and a Agro-Biotechnician, of course I can subscribe tot the fact that Climate Change is the biggest elephant in the room. But as our French correspondent illustrates, if I understand his point correctly, is that permaculture still has a way to go to feed the world.
    It’s not so much that the principles, techniques or basis of diverse and integrated perennial plants is wrong. It is the fact that we need to find ways to implement it on a bigger scale, professionalisation will play a big part in that.

    Not by implementing fossil fuel driven mechanisation, but by creating business plans and evolving expertise that can be applied to or implemented by existing ‘conventional’ farmers on a suitable scale. And yes, sometimes this will mean we have to make compromises by designing halfway solutions like simple agroforestry as seen already today.

    In Belgium we are always late to the party so the largest scale permaculture business is about 2,5 hectares, which will not cut it on a global scale unless you have lots of them. Myself and a bio-engineer student are looking to implement permaculture on a 10 hectare plot right now, but at this scale permaculture isn’t about self-sufficiency and economy factors in, even on a local scale.

    The premise of permaculture, agro-ecology and the likes are very promising avenues, but the point is if we want to save and feed the world we will need to look beyond homesteading. I also see a disregard for existing science with certain permaculturists, this is a very big mistake. It’s not because some research was done to accommodate industrial farming that this knowledge is useless, knowledge is neutral and always interesting.

    I’m sure expansion is possible without neglecting the basic principles of permaculture and still feeding a substantial local population like a small town. I’m sorry to say but I don’t believe self-sufficiency is going to cut it for much of the world as not all of them want or will ever farm.

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