Agriculture needs changes to help save climate and farmers, says national agriculture group

‘The climate crisis and the farm crisis really share many of the same causes’

A worker carries an air filter during wheat harvest on a farm in Alberta. Agriculture generates about eight per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Farming needs to change to help save the climate and farmers themselves, says a national agriculture group.

A report released Wednesday by the National Farmers Union concludes that some elements of old-fashioned mixed farming combined with the latest technology can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep more farm families on the land.

“The climate crisis and the farm crisis really share many of the same causes,” said farmers union president Katie Ward, who raises about 100 head of sheep near Ottawa.

The report attempts to link growing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture with changes to the industry that have seen it get bigger, more expensive and open to fewer and fewer farmers. Farm debt has doubled since 2000, the report says, and most farm family income now comes from work elsewhere.

She points to the high price of farm inputs such as fuel and fertilizer. Inputs soak up 95 per cent of farm revenues, says the report.

‘The equilibrium’

Agriculture generates about eight per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The report suggests ways those emissions can be cut in half by 2050.

It says biofuels and electrification would cut emissions and costs — electric tractors are already being developed. On-farm renewable power generation would help. So would more efficient use of farm inputs, aided by technology.

But what really needs to happen is a move away from big-money, big-acreage, big-machine farming, the report concludes.

“If regenerative agriculture exists, it is likely found in mixed-farming systems that utilize natural nutrient cycles, diverse animal and plant mixes and best-possible grazing methods to restore soils, raise carbon levels, protect water, enhance biodiversity and support sustainable livelihoods.”

We’re not talking about going back to Little House on the Prairie.– Katie Ward

Keeping inputs to a minimum and tilling the soil as little as possible would reduce emissions and leave more revenues for farmers, said Ward. That would let them make a living on smaller holdings.

“We’re not talking about going back to Little House on the Prairie. But there’s absolutely a reason why natural systems have evolved the way they have and the equilibrium that’s found there. There’s a lesson there for farmers to take.”

Keith Currie, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, agreed consumers are looking for low-impact agriculture.

But, he added, the economic drivers of agriculture right now aren’t going away.

“There’s room for all types of farms,” said Currie, who grows grains and oilseeds near Collingwood, Ont. “Being more diverse lowers the risk.

“But the reality is we’re being squeezed as producers by the consumer, who wants the cheapest food possible. Running a small farm, they’re just not profitable enough to earn a living off.”

Something’s got to change, said Colin Laroque from the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan.

“We’ve worked ourselves into a real interesting pickle, making our farms so big and cutting that economic line so close.”

 

Why degrowth is the only responsible way forward

A reduction of economic activity is necessary and just – and can lead to human flourishing.

Moss Graffiti Image: Kulturlabor Trial&Error, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

To sustain the natural basis of our life, we must slow down. We have to reduce the amount of extraction, pollution, and waste throughout our economy. This implies less production, less consumption, and probably also less work.

The responsibility to do so must lie mainly on the rich, who currently enjoy a disproportionate share of our resources. But we should also do things differently, as much of today’s economic activity is of little benefit to human wellbeing. Imagine what could be if we organized democratically to produce what we actually need, distributed those resources fairly, and shared them in common. This, in a nutshell, is the vision of degrowth: a good life for all within planetary boundaries. And while this might seem utopian, there are already concrete policy ideas to start such a transformation.

In a recent article, Leigh Phillips argues that this is a delusion. He brings forth three main critiques: degrowth is (1) not necessary, (2) unjust, and (3) marks the end of progress. He suggests that we should “take over the machine, not turn it off”, expressing his concern that an end to growth would mean an end to all the things that makes our lives so rich, like for example fridges. This reminds him of the likes of Malthus or Thatcher, whose ideologies have supported the imposition of unjust limits onto the poorer parts of society….

Degrowth is necessary

Phillips acknowledges that we need to stay within planetary boundaries. But as an ecomodernist, he believes that all environmental problems can be solved by a shift in technology. All we need to do is become more efficient. This version of post-environmentalism has received a lot of support, as it aligns well with existing powerful interests in the economy. But it is problematic for many reasons.

First, there is no evidence for this claim. The potential of our current technology is limited. And the potential of future innovation is uncertain. As Phillips acknowledges himself, it will take considerable time until new technology arrives. We should not gamble away our future on ideas with such a low (if even known at all) probability of success.

Let us illustrate this in relation to climate change. The latest IPCC report to limit global warming to 1.5° presents four scenarios. Three of them strongly depend on negative emission technologies, which are highly controversial as they have not been proven to work at the required scale and represent an “unjust and high-stakes gamble”. The IPCC also provides a fourth scenario that does not rely on negative emissions, but which notably requires that “global material production and consumption declines significantly”.

Some demand reduction could be achieved through efficiency improvements. But these might be less effective than they appear. As long as we keep pursuing growth, such improvements will be used for further expansion. This can counteract possible environmental gains. Simply put, efficiency improvements make things cheaper and therefore push up consumption. Such a rebound effect has been found both in different countries and industries.

What is more, technological shifts always come at an environmental cost. Every sector of our economy is still based on some form of extraction, pollution, and waste. And all of them depend on carbon. Renewable energy, in particular, requires a great amount of rare minerals and land-use. The same goes for nuclear energy, which demands considerable resources in order to mine uranium, construct power plants, and deal with its waste. Even digital technology has environmental impacts.

Phillips tries to argue against this by pointing at past solutions to environmental problems, like the ozone layer or deforestation. However, he does acknowledge that those examples do not compare well to a bigger challenge like climate change. Some of those challenges were solvable because they only affected a single sector and an easy technological replacement was available.

Additionally, many past environmental challenges have not been overcome, but have simply been reshaped and displaced. Philips points towards the fact that net deforestation ceases in rich countries. But this is mainly because agricultural production is outsourced to poorer ones. The study he uses to show the increase in global tree-cover also shows an alarming reduction in tropical areas. The recent Amazon fires in Brazil, for example, are connected to increased deforestation efforts for agricultural expansion in the territory of the world’s 22nd largest export economy. The total amount of environmental degradation caused by our economy remains coupled to economic activity.

Finally, it is important to understand that environmental issues are all interrelated. Even the successful ozone depletion is nowadays under threat as climate change could reverse the recovery of the ozone layer. The deforestation study mentioned above shows that climate change has contributed to both increases and decreases of vegetation in different parts of the world. Mass extinction is another serious threat that our planet is experiencing at the moment, which is also connected to deforestation. And we know that most mass extinctions of the past “had something to do with rapid climate changes”.

All this means that it is hard to see a way around a reduction of economic activity. MORE

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019: How we’ll invent the future, by Bill Gates

We asked Gates to choose this year’s list of inventions that will change the world for the better.


NICOLAS ORTEGA Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world. 

I was honored when MIT Technology Review invited me to be the first guest curator of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies. Narrowing down the list was difficult. I wanted to choose things that not only will create headlines in 2019 but captured this moment in technological history—which got me thinking about how innovation has evolved over time.

My mind went to—of all things—the plow. Plows are an excellent embodiment of the history of innovation. Humans have been using them since 4000 BCE, when Mesopotamian farmers aerated soil with sharpened sticks. We’ve been slowly tinkering with and improving them ever since, and today’s plows are technological marvels.

But what exactly is the purpose of a plow?

As well as his introductory essay, read Bill Gates’s conversation with editor in chief Gideon Lichfield. Below are his picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies. MORE

RELATED:

The 10 worst technologies of the 21st century

Virtual fences, robot workers, stacked crops: farming in 2040

Population growth and climate change mean we need hi-tech to boost crops, says a new report


 An AI-powered platform called Dick that can spray chemicals and fertilisers exactly where they are needed. Photograph: NFU/Small Robot Company

It is 2040 and Britain’s green and pleasant countryside is populated by robots. We have vertical farms of leafy salads, fruit and vegetables, and livestock is protected by virtual fencing. Changing diets have seen a decline in meat consumption while new biotech production techniques not only help preserve crops but also make them more nutritious.

This is the picture painted in a report from the National Farmers Union which attempts to sketch out what British food and farming will look like in 20 years’ time.

“The Future of Food 2040 report is a catalyst to encourage us all to start the debate about our food and our future so we can plan ahead,” said Andrea Graham, NFU’s head of policy services and author of the report, who interviewed 50 experts across Britain’s food chain to gauge their views. “It is also a reminder for government, at a critical time in British history, to make domestic food production a strategic priority in all policy making.” MORE