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What's Agriculture Got To Do with Climate Change?

Posted on: Monday, November 30, 2009

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Climate Change, UN, Food Sovereignty

We tend to think of cars as the main culprits in climate change. But industrial agriculture, with its fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides, monoculture plantations, fuel-guzzling global transport system, and clear-cutting of carbon-absorbing forests is the source of as much as half of the world’s carbon emissions.

Moreover, the way we grow our food is now threatening our ability to produce enough food to feed the world. Unless we control global climate change, caused in part by industrial farming, agricultural output across the world is likely to plummet.

In Latin America, climate change may bring a 25 percent drop in crop yields within two generations; in Sudan that number is a frightening 50 percent.

Isn’t Industrial Agriculture Necessary to Feed the World Population?

  • Big agribusiness says its goal is to “feed a growing world.” But its actions prioritize profit over even the basic right to food.
  • Industrial agriculture is actually a cause of world hunger. It has made farmers dependent on expensive inputs like pesticides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds.
  • Millions of formerly self-reliant farming families have been driven off their land, unable to compete as the world’s farmland is consolidated into fewer and fewer hands.
  • Export agriculture uses huge inputs of petroleum to fuel its massive global transportation infrastructure and often requires farmers to grow non-food crops like coffee and tea.
  • Small, diverse farms actually grow more food per unit area than large single-crop plantations. But industrial agriculture is more profitable per unit area, which is why we often hear that large farms are “more efficient.”  

Are High-Tech Solutions the Answer to Climate Change?

  • Many corporations, foundations and governments are promoting synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified (GM) organisms and hybrid plants and seeds as solutions to world hunger.
  • Yet, the overuse of fertilizers and chemicals is degrading the quality of soils and contaminating ecosystems globally, making it harder to grow enough food.
  • The claim that GM crops generate higher yields has been debunked.
  • GM crops disrupt farmers’ traditional practice of saving and trading seeds. Farmers who once bred seeds are turned into a captive market for biotech companies.
  • Finally, “high-tech” solutions do nothing to address the real causes of hunger, which are political and economic factors such as poverty, inequality and poor access to land, food and markets.

Why are Smallholder Farmers Important for Climate Change Adaptation?

Why Are These “Women’s Issues?”

  • The majority of smallholder farmers are women who grow as much as 80 percent of the world’s food.
  • Women have expertise in small-scale agriculture, preservation of biodiversity, water collection, seed banking and more. These are the very methods that international institutions now recognize as the basis for a sustainable response to climate change.
  • Because of poverty and gender discrimination, farmers are denied a meaningful say in policies that affect them. Moreover, sustainable farming is being threatened by industrial agricultural policies that undermine the health of the planet and all of us who live on it.

What Methods Will Help Small-Holder Farmers Adapt To Climate Change?

  • Forgoing expensive and toxic fertilizers and pesticides in favor of organic methods of enhancing soil and controlling pests.
  • Improving ways to conserve and manage water,
  • Growing diverse crops and integrating crop and livestock management  
  • Developing seeds that can adapt to drought and other impacts of climate change
  • Strengthening community self-reliance through seed banks and farmers’ associations
  • Building political momentum for small farmers—especially women—to play a meaningful role in policymaking.

What Policies Would Support Such Practices?

  • Those that defend rural communities who have historically maintained the world’s ecosystems—and the climate. We need policies that:
    • Guarantee women small-scale farmers access to land, seeds, water, credit and other inputs and ensure that national legal frameworks uphold women’s property rights.
    • End the privatization and monopolization of seeds by a handful of corporations.
    • Recognize food as first and foremost a human right and only secondarily a tradable commodity. Support a process to establish an international Convention to implement the concept of food sovereignty, whereby communities control their own food systems.
    • Respect the right of small farmers to save and exchange seeds between communities and internationally, without penalties from agribusiness corporations.
    • Convert national agricultural subsidies from support for agribusiness to incentives for sustainable farming.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Sustainable farming is our best bet for feeding a growing world population and restoring the health of the planet and the stability of the climate. That’s the conclusion of a 2008 United Nations report on Africa that found that organic methods produced more food and improve soil, water, biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

Worldwide, the vast majority of small-scale, sustainable farmers are women. Securing the full range of their human rights—as women, as workers, and as rural and Indigenous Peoples—is key to empowering them to enact solutions on which so much depends.


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