In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson informed the world of the harmful effects of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the environment. The publication was influential in shifting a world-wide recognition of environmental concerns. Following the publication in 1970, the United States first celebrated Earth day. In 1983, the first Green Party of Canada was formed. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was ratified globally by countries across the world. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. In 1990, IPCC published its First Assessment Report, highlighting the causal link between human activities and the rise of greenhouse gas emissions. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol agreement was signed, and by 2015 the Paris Agreement was created. However, it is not the global agreements but the small-scale actions of every individual, household and local business that will be the real bread and butter of our country’s future. The focus will be on finding ways to balance our current lifestyle’s wants and needs with the environment’s needs.
Instead of working around the whims and wishes of nature, modern-day agriculture has resisted nature through the means of production. In some respects, this is unavoidable: we need food to survive. The rise in population growth, coupled with climate change, has made chemical fertilizers and land for agricultural and pastoral purposes necessary. This need creates a vicious cycle wherein the environment tries to meet the growing population demands with the same chemicals that will feed climate change and threaten future yields. This report attempts to understand the issues driving the cycle and evaluates attempts at slowing it down.
Climate change has been a tremendous challenge for farmers. Hot weather and lack of rain are a death spell for crop yields, while heavy rainfall tracking in some parts of Canada and the United States in Spring and Autumn can disrupt seeding, maturing, and drying phases for crops. In 2017, a group of researchers studied warmer weather conditions on staple crops like wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. They found that for each centigrade rise in temperature, yields would drop by 3.2-7%. With the global population set to reach just under 10 billion by 2050, the race is on to find new, sustainable farming methods that will ensure high yields. Much of this demand will come from developing countries, where population growth is expected to double in the next 50 years. It is predicted that by 2080, an additional 55-65 million Africans will be at risk of food insecurity.
We will need to feed the growing population and satisfy our dietary wants. This goal is only achieved through agricultural production, which consumes high amounts of energy through gas- and diesel-powered equipment to plant and harvest desired yields. It is not hard to follow the logic and see that agriculture, which already accounts for 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions, is fuelling a climate crisis that will cripple its ability to generate high future yields under the current framework. Other significant causes of climate change from agriculture include overfertilization, land use and deforestation and intensive (not to mention abusive) farming of animals. However, it isn’t as if we can turn off the taps on agricultural production, which gives us the food we need to survive. The task lies in creating ways to balance our need for food with our responsibility to protect against environmental stress and climate change.
Below, I have collected a list of recommendations and potential methods for farming in the 21st century that has been collected from various environmental researchers and activists. According to David Tilman, an ecology professor at UC Santa Barbara, feeding the world does not need to come at the expense of a worsening climate. Instead, we need to shift our dietary habits to include more plant-based sources. A subtle shift in our eating habits would minimize the use of the fertilizers required to grow the food to feed the animals we would then consume while also saving the land needed for raising livestock. Moreover, Tilman argues that we don’t need as many fertilizers as we think to produce high yields and that a 30% reduction in fertilizer use would still bring the same yields at a lower cost to the farmer. By maximizing materials, reducing waste, and limiting overconsumption, we can get our food system to a place where it functions sustainably and is sufficient to feed the population.
The Canadian agricultural sector also focuses on ways to transform agricultural practices to fall in line with sustainability. They highlight methods such as crop diversification, conservation tillage, improved fertilizers and fertilizer applications, gas-capture systems for livestock and manure, and soil carbon sequestering. All of these methods have a role to play in combating climate changing and mitigating emissions from agriculture. While researching this report, carbon sequestration in soil stood out as something of high interest for researchers. Rightly so; it seems to answer the question that generated this article—of how we can meet the challenge of feeding a growing population without harming the environment.
What is soil carbon sequestration?
Soil carbon sequestration is the process of putting carbon released into the air as CO2 back into the soil. Without carbon, the soil becomes merely dirt that is all but absent of the nutrients needed to grow and sustain plant life. By putting the carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil, the soil becomes more nutrient-rich and able to withstand weather changes. Rattan Lal, head of the Carbon and Management Sequestration Centre at Ohio State University, believes that this process is the key to managing a growing global population while addressing climate change. “We cannot feed people if the soil is degraded”, Lal says. Soil relies on carbon for water-retention, structure and fertility. By placing carbon back into the ground, we create the kinds of pools necessary to withstand the types of environmental variability, like droughts and floods, that are already eroding our planet’s lands and soils and contributing to the food crisis.
Scientists are only starting to explore the possibilities for carbon capture in soil. Still, scientists like Thomas J. Goreau see new fields of study like metagenomics—which studies genetic material directly from the environment rather than in a lab—as a promising start to providing new options for the future. Moreover, Lal says that knowledge of carbon sequestration is sufficient to predict that we can store 1 to 3 billion additional tons of carbon in degraded and deserted ecosystems. This scenario is a win-win for the environment: the soils are restored from the carbon they receive, capturing an estimated 3.5-11 billion tons of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere.
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