It’s not just leaves that have been falling this season, the past months have seen several intense climate change reports drop on us too.
First up was the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an exhaustive report on what it will take to keep warming under a critical limit, “Global Warming of 1.5° C.” In it the Nobel Prize winning agency warns that humanity has only about 12 years to implement “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to prevent catastrophic impacts and the displacement of millions of people.
Then, the Trump administration quietly released on Black Friday the Congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment. This was the fourth iteration of this analysis by a coalition of over a dozen federal agencies, who are tasked with regularly reporting to Congress on the state of the climate and the expected impacts of climate change. Agriculture is one of the sectors expected to be most heavily impacted.
And, just this week a special report by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society confirms that we are already feeling these impacts. As The Weather Channel reports, over a dozen extreme weather events in 2017 were made worse because of current conditions triggered by climate change. Heat waves and droughts in Africa and Southern Europe, hurricanes in the US, and huge wildfires in Australia were all more severe because of our warmer world.
Farmers Look for Solutions
Few occupations are as connected to the state of the climate as farmers, so this is all very big, and generally very bad news for the people who grow and raise food around the world.
Agricultural and climate scientists are working hard to help farmers adapt, and a new paradigm is emerging out of the frenzy of research. Known as Climate Smart Agriculture, or CSA, this philosophy of farming seeks to maximize production while minimizing agriculture’s impacts on land use and carbon emissions – two huge drivers of global climate change.
The concept was first articulated in a 2014 paper in Nature Climate Change that describes CSA as “an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural systems to support food security under the new realities of climate change” (Lipper et al., 2014).
Leslie Lipper from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN and an international team of research scientists articulate three core principles of Climate Smart Agriculture:
- Increase agricultural productivity by improved sustainability,
- Build climate resilience into agricultural systems,
- Reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Some examples? Integrating livestock, crop and forestry management objectives via an ecosystem/landscape approach. Using alternative feeds to improve the efficiency of livestock operation while increasing yields. Maximizing yields by plant breeding for localized weather conditions.
The FAO has invested big in CSA. They’ve produced substantial communication tools to get the word out, including a website, feature story, and video (see below).
While agricultural scientists seems excited about CSA, adoption by farmers has been limited since the concept was first articulated in the mid 2010s. A study just published in PLoS One looked into what barriers might be preventing farmers from using climate smart farming methods.
By looking at the implementation of CSA at the farm, household and community level in Vietnam, Nicaragua, and Uganda the researchers determined that the socioeconomic and other local factors drive substantial variation in the costs and benefits of CSA. Economics, surprise, surprise, is the main driver influencing farmers to adopt, or bypass climate-smart practices.
This study points to a need for a highly localized approach to identify the right methods for each community, farmer, and farm. This is a familiar take-home message that keeps coming up as scientists explore alternatives to industrial ag.
Modern, conventional farming is one-stop shopping. Farmers are told to plant big monocultures and grow them essentially the same way everywhere, with patented seeds and the chemicals designed for the crops they produce. On the other hand, alternatives to this industrial approach generally work best when they are tailored to local conditions. Scientists and seed savers can help by selectively breeding plants that are best suited to local conditions, and to the changes anticipated as the climate warms and becomes more volatile.
In other words, if we are asking what the future of farming looks like, and if we want it to be sustainable and climate smart, it looks an awful lot like the way we farmed 100 years, with a lot more science and new technology to increase yields and food quality, and assure more of the food grown reaches people in a nutritious, tasty form.
Lan, L., Sain, G., Czaplicki, S., Guerten, N., Shikuku, K. M., Grosjean, G., & Laderach, P., “Farm-level and community aggregate economic impacts of adopting climate smart agricultural practices in three mega environments,”PLoS One, 2018, 13:11, e0207700. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0207700.
Lipper, Leslie, Thornton, Philip, Campbell, Bruce M., Baedeker, Tobias, Braimoh, Ademola, Bwalya, Martin, Caron, Patrick, Cattaneo, Andrea, Garrity, Dennis, Henry, Kevin, Hottle, Ryan, Jackson, Louise, Jarvis, Andrew, Kossam, Fred, Mann, Wendy, McCarthy, Nancy, Meybeck, Alexandre, Neufeldt, Henry, Remington, Tom, Sen, Pham Thi, Sessa, Reuben, Shula, Reynolds, Tibu, Austin, & Torquebiau, Emmanuel F., “Climate-smart agriculture for food security,” Nature Climate Change, 2014, 4, 1068-1072, doi:10.1038/nclimate2437.