By Robert Turner
After a decade farming and trying to grow food at some sort of scale, I was frustrated, and about to give up. The problems were too big, and most people were complacent about it.
Many people are driving fuel efficient cars and live in energy efficient homes but give no consideration to the food miles associated with our dinner, or the decimation of our soils and biosphere that comes from modern, industrial agriculture.
I knew that many of the world’s great civilizations collapsed because of environmental degradation, mostly related to the depletion of the soil from agriculture, from the Maya to Easter Island to Angkor Wat to the Romans to the Vikings in Greenland. The fertile crescent, the birthplace of civilization, was once fertile and now it’s a desert. Environmental collapse, and the collapse of agriculture, took out the ancient Babylonians, the Phoenicians and the Macedonians. Why should we be any different, except that we are looking at environmental collapse on a global scale?
The low point for me came when I learned that we had already killed off half the insects and a third of the birds in North America, largely due to the overuse of deadly pesticides. Then a United Nations report came out that suggested we had enough topsoil left worldwide for about 60 years—that means 60 harvests. Would my kids and grandkids have to live with desertification, water wars and the turmoil of mass migration on a scale that we can’t even imagine, with millions, even billions, of people on the move?
Then Lewis Mumford started teaching me about regenerative agriculture and its ability to rebuild the soil and pull carbon from the atmosphere at the same time, and that gave me hope. Regenerative agriculture, Mumford told me, could solve climate change, reverse desertification, increase yields for a growing population, and reduce the need for hazardous chemicals. Corporate led industrial agriculture was destroying the soil and the environment, but regenerative farming could reverse all that. That was a turning point for me; it was a life changing moment. Something shifted in me, in my head. I spent years looking at how bad things were getting in the food system, and struggling on my own farm, and suddenly my eyes were opened. It wasn’t about sustaining, or sustainability, it was something bigger. We could actually regenerate the land and build up the soil faster than we ever thought possible. That was worth fighting for. That became my ‘why’, and that’s when I joined a quirky band of rebel food fighters. (excerpt from Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America)
That belief in regenerative agriculture still gave me hope and strength even as I read the most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). On February 28, the IPCC issued its “bleakest warning yet” on “climate breakdown.”
What is at stake? In short, everything. Climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly, and many of the impacts will be more severe than once predicted. There is only a narrow chance left of avoiding its worst ravages, says the report. Even at current levels, human actions in heating the climate are causing dangerous and widespread disruption, threatening devastation to the natural world and already rendering many areas unlivable.
“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of an IPCC working group. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”
The IPCC is the global authority on climate science, and its summary report says droughts, floods, heatwaves and other occurrences are causing increasing damage, and creating a snowball effect as more carbon is created in the atmosphere. John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate, said this about the report: “The question at this point is not whether we can altogether avoid the crisis—it is whether we can avoid the worst consequences.”
The report says that everyone on the planet will be affected, with no inhabited region escaping dire impacts from rising temperatures and extreme weather. About half the global population—between 3.3 billion and 3.6 billion people—live in “highly vulnerable” areas, and millions face food and water shortages. Dave Reay, director of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, has said that climate change “threatens to destroy the foundations of food and water security,” disrupt the fragile structures of ecosystem health, and, ultimately, “shake the very pillars of human civilization.”
This is all pretty scary stuff. But I’ve said before in this column: agriculture done right is the most cost-effective tool we have to pull excess carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground where it belongs. By some estimates, the current, chemically intensive system of industrial agriculture is responsible for between 20 and 30 percent of carbon emissions (including long distance transportation). We can (and must) invest in sustainable and regenerative agriculture if we’re going to reduce emissions, capture more carbon and ensure a future with food security for all.
Seven Investment Strategies that can Shape the Future of Food
• Digitizing the farm using satellites, smart sensors and GPS technologies to better manage and reduce inputs, costs and pollution, and to track, verify and validate agricultural carbon credits for resale.
• Financing regenerative agricultural practices that improve soil health, reduce soil erosion and encourage farmers to invest in methods such as organics, composting, multi-species cover crops, crop rotations and no-till planting.
• Better pest control science, including organics or biologics (pesticides derived from natural materials) and possible RNA Technology to avert an insect and bird apocalypse and improve ecosystem health.
• Robotics to reduce labor and improve efficiency on the farm and in the supply chain.
• Investments in local food production including pasture-raised beef; regional processing centers to grind wheat, make bread and pasta, and process meat; and greenhouse and indoor hydroponic technologies for year-round local sourcing.
• Technologies that reduce food waste including better tracing and data that allow farmers, distributors, retailers and consumers to track and control waste; bio-based coatings to preserve crops; and efficient distribution of donations to food banks.
• Give consumers what they want including healthy food that is less damaging to the environment.
What you can do right now:
• Vote with your dollars. Shop farmers markets, buy local and organic food when you can and join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Ask restaurants and grocers to source more local food from local farmers.
• Start a small garden in your backyard. Support local organizations—like Organic Growers School or the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project—who teach and promote local farm sales. Follow ASAP’s Local Food Guide.
• Call or write food companies with concerns about their farming and sourcing practices. Ask if their suppliers and farmers are using cover crops and limited-till methods of farming to preserve soils.
• Contact political representatives about labeling laws for meat products, so that we can choose to buy US beef. Tell them to enforce anti-trust laws to break up monopolies and stop corporate take-over of our farmland and food system.
• Know where pension and retirement funds are being invested and stop the foreign investment and Wall Street take-over of American farmland. Farmers who own the land are better stewards of the land.
Robert Turner is director of Creekside Farm Education Center. His book Lewis Mumford and the Food Fighters: A Food Revolution in America will be released May 15. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.