This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change, write report authors Danielle Nierenberg and Laura Reynolds.
Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.
“The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change,” said Reynolds, Worldwatch’s food and agriculture research associate. “Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change.
This report, Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture: Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production,discusses six sustainable approaches to land and water use, in both rural and urban areas, that are helping farmers and other food producers mitigate or adapt to climate change—and often both. They are:
- Building Soil Fertility: Alternatives to heavy chemical use in agriculture, such as avoiding unnecessary tilling or raising both crops and livestock on the same land, can help to drastically reduce the total amount of energy expended to produce a crop or animal, reducing overall emissions.
- Agroforestry: Because trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, keeping them on farms whenever possible can help mitigate climate change. Agroforestry also keeps the soil healthier and more resilient by maximizing the amount of organic matter, microorganisms, and moisture held within it. Agroforestry also provides shade for livestock and certain crops, and creates habitats for animals and insects, such as bees, that pollinate many crops.
- Urban Farming: Growing food in cities can mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions released from the transport, processing, and storage of food destined for urban populations. Urban agriculture also increases the total area of non-paved land in cities, making urban landscapes more resilient to flooding and other weather shocks, while improving the aesthetic value of these landscapes.
- Cover Cropping/Green Manure: Cover cropping, also known as green manure, is the practice of strategically planting crops that will deliver a range of benefits to a farming system, and often plowing these crops into the soil instead of harvesting their organic matter. Planting cover crops improves soil fertility and moisture by making soil less vulnerable to drought or heat waves. Cover crops also serve as a critical deterrent against pests and diseases that affect crops or livestock, such as corn root worm or Rift Valley fever, particularly as warmer temperatures enable these organisms to survive in environments that were previously too cold for them.
- Improving Water Conservation and Recycling: Innovations in water conservation, including recycling wastewater in cities, using precise watering techniques such as drip irrigation rather than sprinklers, and catching and storing rainwater, all help to reduce the global strain on already-scarce water resources.
- Preserving Biodiversity and Indigenous Breeds: Growing diverse and locally adapted indigenous crops, such as yams, quinoa, and cassava, can provide a source of income and improve farmers’ chances of withstanding the effects of climate change, such as heat stress, drought, and the expansion of disease and pest populations. Preserving plant and animal biodiversity also reduces farmers’ overreliance on a small number of commodity crops that make them vulnerable to shifts in global markets.
By tapping into the multitude of climate-friendly farming practices that already exist, agriculture can continue to provide food for the world’s population, as well as be a source of livelihood for the 1.3 billion people who rely on farming for income and sustenance. If agriculture is to play a positive role in the global fight against climate change, however, agricultural practices that mitigate or adapt to climate change will need to receive increased research, attention, and investment in the coming years.
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From Greta Thunberg to Sir David Attenborough, the headline-grabbing climate change activists and environmentalists of today are predominantly white. But like many areas of society, those whose voices are heard most often are not necessarily representative of the whole.
1. Wangari Maathai<p>In 2004, Professor Maathai made history as the <a href="https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/Prize-winners/Prizewinner-documentation/Wangari-Maathai" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize</a> for her dedication to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She started the <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Green Belt Movement</a>, a community-based tree planting initiative that aims to reduce poverty and encourage conservation, in 1977. More than 51 million trees have been planted helping build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls. Her environmental work is celebrated every year on <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/955" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Wangari Maathai Day on 3 March</a>.</p>
2. Robert Bullard<p>Known as the 'father of environmental justice,' Dr Bullard has <a href="https://www.unep.org/championsofearth/laureates/2020/robert-bullard" target="_blank">campaigned against harmful waste</a> being dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the southern states of the U.S. since the 1970s. His first book, Dumping in Dixie, highlighted the link between systemic racism and environmental oppression, showing how the descendants of slaves were exposed to higher-than-average levels of pollutants. In 1994, his work led to the signing of the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/albert-huang/20th-anniversary-president-clintons-executive-order-12898-environmental-justice" target="_blank">Executive Order on Environmental Justice</a>, which the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/" target="_blank">Biden administration is building on</a>.<br></p>
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Pollution has a race problem. Elizabethwarren.com
3. John Francis<p>Helping the clean-up operation after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in January 1971 inspired Francis to <a href="https://planetwalk.org/about-john/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stop taking motorized transport</a>. Instead, for 22 years, he walked everywhere. He also took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, so he could listen to others. He has walked the width of the U.S. and sailed and walked through South America, earning the nickname "Planetwalker," and raising awareness of how interconnected people are with the environment.</p>
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4. Dr. Warren Washington<p>A meteorology and climate pioneer, Dr. Washington was one of the first people to develop atmospheric computer models in the 1960s, which have helped scientists understand climate change. These models now also incorporate the oceans and sea ice, surface water and vegetation. In 2007, the <a href="https://www.cgd.ucar.edu/pcm/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Parallel Climate Model (PCM)</a> and <a href="https://www.cesm.ucar.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Community Earth System Model (CESM)</a>, earned Dr. Washington and his colleagues the <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2007/summary/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nobel Peace Prize</a>, as part of the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change</a>.</p>
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5. Angelou Ezeilo<p>Huge trees and hikes to pick berries during her childhood in upstate New York inspired Ezeilo to become an environmentalist and set up the <a href="https://gyfoundation.org/staff/Angelou-Ezeilo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Greening Youth Foundation</a>, to educate future generations about the importance of preservation. Through its schools program and Youth Conservation Corps, the social enterprise provides access to nature to disadvantaged children and young people in the U.S. and West Africa. In 2019, Ezeilo published her book <em>Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders</em>, co-written by her Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Nick Chiles.</p>
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