Farming: A Problem and a Solution to Climate Change

    A letter to the editor from 2018

    I have no more desire to debate a climate change denier than I would to debate someone who believes the moon landings were faked. If someone is so set on believing what they dug up on some website over the vast majority of scientists, governments, and businesses worldwide, nothing I can say is going to change their mind. If only the climate changed so slowly…

    Besides, I prefer latching on to whatever thin threads of agreement I can find with others, and something Mike Scapillato said I actually agree with! While he thinks that 1.2 billion vehicles worldwide pumping 2.4 million pounds of C02 into the atmosphere each second is having no effect on planetary temperatures (how could it?), he does seem to believe that cow farts (let’s leave the poor termites’ bodily functions out of this for now) might be warming things up a bit.

    While I think that cattle specifically and livestock in general are the unjust recipients of too much bad press on this issue (grass-fed animals have some remarkable soil carbon sequestering effects when their grazing is managed appropriately, for instance), I agree that the role of food production in climate change is both significant and overlooked. According to Eric Toensmeier in his scrupulously researched book, The Carbon Farming Solution, greenhouse gas emissions resulting directly from farming account for 11 to 15 percent of total emissions worldwide. However, if you add in the whole production chain, from field to fork, including processing, retailing, and land clearing for agriculture, the total reaches 44 to 57 percent!

    Cars get all the attention, perhaps because we can practically see, and certainly smell, the emissions coming out of that pipe at the back of them. But besides food production and transportation, the third big source of emissions, also often neglected, is buildings (how we heat them, cool them, light them, build them, etc.).

    But as a food producer, my focus is on that roughly half of emissions caused by keeping us all fed. What really gets me excited about farming is not the huge carbon/methane/nitrous oxide footprint food production is responsible for, but the huge potential of farming to actually bring atmospheric carbon levels back down to a safe level. Soils brought under the plow and mismanaged have lost organic matter (that’s carbon!), but soils managed organically with minimal tillage can regain their lost carbon in a matter of years. If all the farmland worldwide gained just half a percent of organic matter a year (a level that the best managed farms are already achieving), it would suck 15 ppm of C02 out of the atmosphere each year. Do that for eight years and you’ve sequestered the 120 ppm of C02 that we’ve put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    The icing on the cake is that more organic matter in the soil means healthier crops. And sequestering carbon in soil with annual agriculture is just one tool in the toolbox of carbon farming. There’s agroforestry, where trees are integrated into agricultural systems; intensively managed grazing systems for livestock; biochar; and the growing of perennial crops.

    Thanks, Mike, for the opportunity to write about one of my favourite subjects. Maybe next time we can talk about why supposedly pro-market conservatives don’t want to support a market based solution like a carbon tax. And by the way, the idea that the sun is responsible for the Earth’s rising temperatures is a myth. Check out the website Skeptical Science for a debunking of that climate myth, as well as some 200 others, with links to the relevant scientific papers.