How Agriculture and Climate are Interconnected
Meaghan Weeden | February 23, 2021 | 4 min read
How Will Agriculture and Climate Change Impact Food Security?
As we head into UN Year of Fruits and Vegetables, it’s worth taking a close look at how agriculture and climate change impact each other — and what we can do about it. We know the greenhouse gases that drive the most warming are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) — and that they're all emitted by agriculture.
And in their most recent U.S. Agriculture and Forestry Greenhouse Gas Inventory, the USDA found that in the US alone, the agricultural sector accounted for 698 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions (or 10.5% of our greenhouse gas emissions) in 2018. Globally, that percentage is even higher, with the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimating that industrial agriculture practices account for a cumulative 25% of greenhouse gas emissions year over year.
The science is clear: the foods we eat are inextricably linked to the climate crisis, and to avoid experiencing the worst impacts of climate change, we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from the food and agriculture sectors — and we must do it soon.
Climate Change and Animal Agriculture: How They’re Connected
We’re sure you’ve heard that cows produce methane, and while the average meat carbon footprint can be substantial, there’s actually a lot more to it than that. Meat producers clear vast swaths of forest (sometimes by starting forest fires) to graze their livestock, and give them specialized feed to beef them up (no pun intended) for the market — in fact, 80% of all soybeans grown go directly into feed for cattle, poultry, pigs, and farmed fish.
Given this, the World Resources Institute found that if current dietary patterns continue without any increase in productivity, an additional 593 million hectares (or 2 Indias) would be needed to feed the anticipated population of 9.8 billion people by 2050. In other words, most of the world’s remaining forests would need to be cleared to feed the world.
While the average vegan diet is responsible for less than half of the GHGs than the average omnivorous one is, going vegan isn't necessarily a silver bullet solution for climate change. In the EU, most of the soy that people consume is grown in South America — and is therefore directly responsible for a percentage of Amazon deforestation. In the US, most of the soy consumed is grown domestically, and that has its own set of problems.
Broadly speaking, it isn’t necessarily about what diet we adopt, but what kind of agricultural practices we inherently support.
How Agriculture Affects Climate Change
- Degrades soils by planting monocultures, relying on synthetic fertilizer, and tilling fields regularly,
- Reduces diversity by transforming landscapes from biodiverse ecosystems to monocultural fields,
- Pollutes the land by relying heavily on fertilizers and pesticides.
Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture
Our existing agricultural practices place a tremendous burden on nature, leaving a farmers highly susceptible to climate change impacts such as:
- Changing precipitation patterns
- Changing temperature patterns
- Extreme weather events like floods and droughts
- Reduced crop and livestock viability
- Proliferation of pests, pathogens, and migrating weeds that handily outcompete native crops
As a result, farmers — who are on the frontlines of climate change — will increasingly face grueling and potentially unsafe conditions, accelerated crop failures and livestock losses, threatened livelihoods as profits are lost and farms fail, reduced water supplies, and more.
And as they say, No Farms, No Food: while farms struggle to keep the lights on, consumers will feel the effects of a destabilizing food supply — like higher prices and decreased food security. This ripple effect will extend beyond our dinner plates, though, affecting national and international markets for fiber, bioenergy, and other farmed products.
How We Can Transform the Food System
Farmers are the lifeblood of any nation, and supporting them, food workers, and rural economies to adapt their practices and increase resilience is important for more than just climate change mitigation. The good news is that there are plenty of science-backed solutions and we can work with farmers to transform our agricultural system, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sequester carbon, support biodiversity, rebuild our soils, and more. These include:
- Building healthy, “spongy” soilsthat capture and store water and carbon through practices like planting cover crops and deep-rooted perennials
- Helping farmers increase their resilience and transform farms into diverse agroecosystems by planting native trees and plants where appropriate
- Selecting and developing crop varieties and livestock breeds that are more resilient to variable climate conditions
- Reducing food waste (if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China)
- Phasing out damaging pesticides and fertilizers by integrating sustainable farming practices
- Supporting women's farming cooperatives — study after study has shown that investing in women benefits the entire community
- Reducing our consumption of factory farmed meat and supporting local, pasture-raised meat producers
- Supporting sustainable agroforestry projects around the world, and more!
Transforming our agricultural system is a big task for an already struggling industry, but it’s just as essential to managing the climate crisis as planting trees.
Just as we need to restore forests through an integrated approach of conserving existing ecosystems, restoring degraded ones, and supporting reforestation where we must, we must also take a multi-layered approach to levelling up our food systems to face the challenges of the 21st century. By supporting our farmers as they transition to the integrated, sustainable practices necessary to feed a warming planet, we can accomplish that and so much more.
Want to support an agroforestry project we’re passionate about? Plant a tree in India today!