Food. It’s something we can’t live without, and even if we could, we wouldn’t want to. Often our lives revolve around it, but many of us never consider how it reaches our tables.
Worldwide much of our food is produced on large commercial farms. This food system depends on high yields, annual soil turning, and monocultural production which have many far reaching environmental consequences from greenhouse gas contributions to soil erosion.
As climate changes, worries about how this will affect our global food supply are very real. Agriculture is one of the only economic sectors directly affected by climate change due to its reliance on weather inputs like sunlight, temperature, and rainfall for production. Different climate prediction models from the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report project highly variable and regionally different impacts of climate change on agriculture, but general trends across models point to reduced yields. Rural areas, especially where people can’t afford to adjust livelihoods, are expected to be hit hardest by ensuing changes in precipitation and temperature resulting in production area shifts. Extreme climate events, like flooding, have already been seen to affect the global market by raising food prices.
The agriculture-climate change relationship is a two way street. Agriculture is integrated into the global carbon cycle as cultivated land represents 14% of the terrestrial biosphere, or vegetation. Plants turn CO2 from the atmosphere, through photosynthesis, into mass. Forests have more biomass than cultivated land and therefore are a greater carbon sink. Cultivated land only sequesters, or stores, 20-40% of the carbon forests do. According to environmental economist Juha Siikamaki’s report in Environment, agriculture sources 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions — specifically methane and nitrous oxides.
Agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions through a number of activities. Enteric fermentation (a digestive process in which breaking down carbs releases methane gas) from livestock results in methane emissions. Industrial fertilizer production from natural gas releases nitrous oxides. According to Siikamaki, clearcutting, slash and burn agriculture, and soil disruption through tilling release accumulated carbon stored in the soil.
Studies abound that suggest ways in which we can adjust and adapt our current agricultural management strategies to make the system more flexible and resilient to changes in climate and less of a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A few from Siikamaki’s report include improving crop varieties to increase biomass and therefore carbon sequestration and biofuel potential, developing more precise methods of fertilizer application to limit nitrogen runoff into waterways, implementing a carbon credit system for farmers, and conservative tilling practices to reduce carbon fluxes from the soil.
Although valid ideas, they aren’t the solutions we need. These are based on the idea that we should maintain our current system of annual harvests of monoculture agriculture. According to the Ecological Society of America’s 2009 meeting, conventional agriculture is not sustainable because it detrimentally affects the land that is so necessary for its own success. Even with crop rotations, annual harvests leave the soil bare for part of the year, exposing it to erosion from wind and rain. According to biologist Stuart Pimm’s article in Nature, this depletes soil fertility, creating a need for fertilizers, and plants lack resistance to diseases, weeds, and insects which creates the need for pesticides.
What we really need is a new attitude towards agriculture, an overhaul of the food system worldwide. One solution is perennial agriculture, specifically of cereal crops.
Perennials, unlike annuals, are plants that persist for multiple years. They aren’t new to commercial agriculture, take alfalfa for example, but they aren’t integrated to their full potential either. According to Pimm, about 85% of food production worldwide is from wheat, maize and other grains which are all annual strands with perennial counterparts. Although these perennial strands have not yet been hybridized to prosper on a large scale, scientists are currently working on just that.
According the J.D. Glover and coauthors in their article in Science, perennials provide “reliable regrowth and high grain yield and quality over multiple years; adaptation to abiotic stresses, such as water and nutrient deficiencies; and resistance to pests and diseases.” Perennial agriculture would decrease the need for tilling, decrease soil erosion and infertility, and increase carbon sequestration. These translate into less carbon released into the atmosphere.
The bottom line is that our current system is vulnerable to the climate change that it contributes to. For sustainable food production and food security, we should not rely on methods that deteriorate the land that provides for us, but instead let us invest our efforts into exacting a method full of potential: perennial agriculture.
Gould is a sophomore from Milwaukee, Wisconsin currently studying Environmental Studies at Macalester College. She enjoys running, eating, and baking in her free time.