The New Frontiers of Farming Come With Huge Climate Risks

A worker picks cherries from a tree on May 21, 2018 in Acampo, California.Photo: Getty

Not sure you’ve heard, but the planet is getting hotter. The heat is making farming harder in some places, but it’s also making it possible to bring agriculture into new areas. Farmers are growing food in northern Alberta, Canada. Russia plans to “use the advantages” of global warming to expand its agriculture northward. And by 2030, New England could have three times as much farmland as it does now. Finally, some good news!

Except maybe not. New research shows that expanding agriculture northward could screw up the environment and unleash a flood of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, worsening the climate crisis. The new study published in PLOS One on Wednesday shows that disturbing soils on new northern farmland could release 177 gigatons of carbon. That’s equivalent to more than a century’s worth of present-day carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S.

The researchers used projections from 17 global climate models and found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, global temperatures could rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. That would open up as much as 9.3 million square miles of arable land in the northern part of the world as well as high altitude areas by 2080. Those new areas could support important food crops, including wheat, corn and soy. Yes, the findings are based on the upper end of carbon emissions scenarios, but even lower emissions scenarios will still warm the planet and create millions of acres of new potential farmland.

Farming isn’t inherently bad. After all, people need to eat. And if the world’s population grows to 10 billion by 2050, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food. The problem is how we farm. Soil traps carbon from the atmosphere, and when it’s turned over to create new farmland, some of that carbon gets released. That effect at a large scale, the researchers worry, could trigger runaway climate change.

To make matters worse, farming new frontiers could also pose problems for biodiversity, especially in tropical mountain regions that are newly warm enough to support agriculture. The predicted new farming frontiers cover some of the world’s most biodiverse regions and critical bird habitats. Agriculture that relies on fertilizer and fossil fuel-powered equipment also releases toxic byproducts into the local environment that can trickle downstream (see the Gulf of Mexico dead zone for a prime example of how had it can get). Farming higher in the mountains could pollute drinking water that more than 1.8 billion people rely on.

These effects are all bad on their own, but the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and water pollution can compound the stress of each even further. Another recent study showed that these threats “have the potential to impact and amplify one another in ways that might cascade to create global systemic collapse.”

There are policies that could mitigate these effects, such as making sure that the world’s most carbon-rich soil is off limits, and reforesting the areas that are no longer suitable for agriculture. And since all the potential farmland the researchers identified isn’t ready to farm yetthe time to create those policies is now, before there’s money to be made off those new frontiers and things go full Wild West. SOURCE

Mass starvation is humanity’s fate if we keep flogging the land to death

The Earth cannot accommodate our need and greed for food. We must change our diet before it’s too late

lustration: Thomas Pullin

George MonbiotBrexit; the crushing of democracy by billionaires; the next financial crash; a rogue US president: none of them keeps me awake at night. This is not because I don’t care – I care very much. It’s only because I have a bigger question on my mind. Where is all the food going to come from?

By the middle of this century there will be two or three billion more people on Earth. Any one of the issues I am about to list could help precipitate mass starvation. And this is before you consider how they might interact.

The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.

Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in south Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by the year 2050. Where will it come from?

The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. These predictions could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4C of warming in the US corn belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%. 

The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.

Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with fewer than five hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the UK has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.

While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global sea grab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. About 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?

…There are no easy answers, but the crucial change is a shift from an animal- to a plant-based diet. All else being equal, stopping both meat production and the use of farmland to grow biofuels could provide enough calories for another 4 billion people and double the protein available for human consumption. Artificial meat will help: one paper suggests it reduces water use by at least 82% and land use by 99%.

The next green revolution will not be like the last one. It will rely not on flogging the land to death, but on reconsidering how we use it and why. Can we do this, or do we – the richer people now consuming the living planet – find mass death easier to contemplate than changing our diet?



We are not just a small bit player’: National Inuit organization launches climate change strategy

“Our land underneath us is melting as we speak. It’s climate change and it’s not faring well for a lot of people up here.”

Inuit have largely been ‘excluded’ from climate change decisions, says Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president

The landscape of the Mackenzie Delta is a maze of small lakes and rivers. Thawing permafrost is now transforming it in ways no one has ever seen. Canada’s Inuit want a bigger role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. (David Michael Lamb/CBC)

On Friday in Inuvik, N.W.T., Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is releasing a national climate change strategy to help Inuit adapt and thrive while becoming climate change leaders, according to the organization.

Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland, accounts for 35 per cent of Canada’s landmass. (CBC)

“Inuit are often brought into the conversation as ‘canaries in a coal mine’ talking about the personal lived experience of the effects of climate change,” Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president, said in Inuvik.

The organization represents roughly 65,000 Inuit in Canada. Most live in 51 communities spread out over four regions, areas warming at a rate up to three times faster than the global average.

Far too often, Obed says, Inuit are “largely excluded” from developing climate change policy and research.

“We are not just a small bit player. We don’t want to sit by and listen to others talk about our fate. We want to be participating and active actors in creating solutions that will not only help Inuit Nunangat, but the globe.”

The strategy focuses on five priorities:

  • Knowledge and capacity building.
  • Health and well-being.
  • Food security.
  • Energy.
  • Infrastructure.