Note: Thanks to Mary-Howell Martens for permission to share with HA readers her reflections from a speaking engagement at a recent Youth Climate Summit. Mary-Howell is an organic grain farmer who also manages an organic feed and seed business in upstate New York, Lakeview Organic Grains.
We had an interesting experience this week, speaking to a Youth Climate Summit at Hobart William Smith college in Geneva. This was a gathering of high school students from the mid-Finger Lakes area, some of the brightest young minds discussing how climate change will impact their lives and the world where they are coming of age.
Our topic was ‘Climate Change and Agricultural Sustainability’, and before we even got started, a young woman walked into the room and firmly declared that she was a vegan and she did NOT like farms.
Oh yeah, you don’t like farms? Really?
No, absolutely not!
It took a little more conversation to urge her to qualify that she does not like animal agriculture – that confused her a little, she apparently hadn’t thought that her vegan food was grown on a farm too.
The concept that there is a lot of land not well-suited for food production that can better be used for grazing, forage and cover crops was new to her, as was the need for a farm to rotate into soil-building/nitrogen-producing crops, many of which are unsuited to direct human consumption but very well-suited for animal consumption. She had also not thought about the environmental costs of synthetic fertilizers, as compared to wisely using animals manures and legume cover crops for fertility.
Then, when we got talking about food waste, because 1/3 of all food produced on this earth becomes trash due to spoilage, imperfections, cleanings/peelings, past-due date, restaurant/grocery/processing waste etc but could be fed to animals – well, that was visibly uncomfortable. There is plenty of waste from vegan lentils and rice that could feed pigs instead of going to landfills – imagine that! Feeding the world’s population with the food we currently produce would be possible, if we did not discard a third of it as waste.
At the same time, there was a young man in the room from one of New York’s conventional mega-dairies who was visibly uncomfortable by other things we said about soil health, crop rotation, pesticides, reducing consumption of animal , diversifying diets to better reflect what is needed to support diversified resilient farms. About eating a more plant-based diet with animal products to supplement rather than lead.
And all the kids were engaged but uncomfortable by the idea of increasing food insecurity and decreasing food sovereignty, especially in the Global Middle which will be the most impacted by erratic and extreme weather, severe weather events, rising sea level, and the ensuing economic, political and social instability. Food security directly impacts world political/social stability.
I have no desire to try to convince anyone not to be vegetarian, carnivore, vegan, whatever – as their own personal food preference.
But there is an imperative to talk about what is needed for farm resiliency and food security in a time of increasing climate unpredictability and erratic/severe weather. Highly productive agriculture has always relied on climatic predictability – so what do we do now?
There is an imperative to talk about what crop rotation really means, in terms of crops, strategies, choices, goals, in crop usage, in markets, in farm financial and environmental viability and resilience.
There is an imperative to talk about soil health as a tool to improve carbon sequestration, to decrease soil loss, to decrease reliance on purchased fertilizer and pesticide inputs, to reduce petroleum energy use, to minimize and control pests, and to talk about what farmers must do to improve soil health, to increase soil microbial diversity and soil organic matter.
There is an imperative to talk about creating food systems worldwide that are more resilient, less dependent on outside agricultural inputs, on export markets, on imported food aid, that are more nutritionally self-sufficient on a local level. Such food systems should pair plant and animal agriculture to better create self-sustaining systems. We must also talk about the likely consequences of NOT promoting and doing this.
There is an imperative to be willing to talk about animal welfare, to acknowledge that there are troublesome issues, to discuss improvements, to be honest, realistic and upfront about it, because as livestock farmers, this is often the ‘elephant in the room’.
There is so very much to talk about – but it is complicated, nuanced, multi-faceted, not well suited to soundbites or dogmatic ‘belief’.
I just hope our listeners will stick around to really listen, really hear.