Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

Solving hunger and climate change through agriculture

What if we could solve world hunger while also stopping climate change?

With nearly one-quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change coming from food, agriculture and land use, it’s clear that we must make drastic changes to reduce our impact. From deforestation to methane emissions from livestock, a growing list of causes have the potential to either protect or pummel our planet.

But what if these concerns could actually become part of the solution? With the right strategies, the right management and the right mindset, they can.

“Most of the time, whenever we are having a discussion about what we can do to address climate change, the answer is directed toward energy and renewables,” said Dr. Mamta Mehra, senior fellow with Project Drawdown. “And that is true. We need those solutions. But nature-based solutions also have an impact.”

Project Drawdown is a California-based think tank for climate solutions, and one of their most impactful strategies for solving global climate change comes from the food, land and agriculture sectors. By changing how we approach food production and land management on a global scale, we can not only make a major impact on agriculture greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of global warming — we can also help reduce food waste and hunger across the globe.

“We believe at Project Drawdown that for every problem, there is a solution,” said Dr. Mehra at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience 2020. “For every fear, there is a possibility. And every conflict can be resolved by collaborations.”

What is drawdown?

The concentration of greenhouse gases in the air continues to increase, magnifying and accelerating global climate change. Drawdown refers to the point at which those levels of greenhouse gas emissions begin to decline — in other words, the point at which we begin to reverse global warming.

Project Drawdown is dedicated to finding ways to achieve that goal by 2050 by looking at climate solutions across all industries and sectors. Of their 20 most impactful climate solutions, ten are related to land, food and agriculture, making those sectors some of our most powerful weapons in the fight against global climate change.

Project Drawdown’s top 10 food, agriculture and land-use strategies

  1. Reduced food waste
  2. Plant-rich diets
  3. Tropical forest restoration
  4. Silvopasture
  5. Peatland protection and rewetting
  6. Tree plantations on degraded land
  7. Temperate forest restoration
  8. Managed grazing
  9. Perennial staple crops
  10. Tree intercropping

Transforming threat into opportunity

So how can we turn land use and agriculture from a cause of climate change into a solution? As with any topic this diverse, the answer lies in making multiple smaller changes instead of attempting to make one big change. Project Drawdown’s climate solutions fall into three main categories:

  1. Protect intact ecosystems: Earth is rapidly running out of intact ecosystems, as 77% of the land on the planet has been modified by human activities — and that’s excluding Antarctica. The remaining intact forests, wetlands and grasslands are vital to fighting the effects of global warming and must be protected from further encroachment and destruction.
  2. Restore degraded land: This could mean restoring wetlands to their original, intact state. It could also mean turning degraded forests and grasslands into usable space for growing crops like corn or bamboo. Both strategies turn degraded land from wasted space into productive acreage, helping reverse the effects of global warming while also protecting intact ecosystems from future use by reducing the need for new land to exploit.
  3. Shift agriculture practices: Shifting existing agricultural practices to more sustainable methods can have a major impact on climate change. Many of these practices — like silvopasture, the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock, or planting perennial staples like bananas, avocado and coconut instead of annual crops — have been practiced for thousands of years but aren’t used as widely as they could be.

All of these climate solutions fight the effects of global warming in two ways: they reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere and they sequester carbon dioxide into the soil, as well as into the biomass of the plants themselves.

Answering global hunger

Where exactly does world hunger come into play in this discussion?

For Project Drawdown, changing the way the world eats is key to solving global warming. Their number-one most impactful solution is reducing food waste, which accounts for a staggering percentage of total global food production.

“Reducing food waste is about reducing food losses and wastage across all stages of production, distribution, retail and consumption,” said Dr. Mehra. “Thirty to forty percent of food gets wasted, and we still have issues of poverty and hunger. And because we are having these losses, the resources — seeds, water, nutrients and financial capital for the production of these wasted foods — also get wasted.”

According to the World Food Program USA and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reversing food waste “would preserve enough food to feed 2 billion people . That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”

In addition to reversing waste, Project Drawdown also highlights the positive impact of shifting to a plant-rich diet. With 77% of all agricultural land currently in use for livestock, reducing the demand for meat and dairy would reduce both the need for this land and the methane gas emissions from cattle — a major source of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since plant crops use less land and fewer resources than livestock, shifting to a plant-rich diet would allow us to grow more food — and feed more people — on existing grazing lands across the globe.

“Together, as a system addressing the supply side and demand side, our analyses have shown that we are in a position to produce a sustainable amount of food and biomass for our current population as well as a growing population, besides having additional impact on the climate,” said Dr. Mehra. “This is a win-win situation. You have a positive climate impact. You have a positive impact on society, and you also have a positive impact on the livelihood of the people who are dependent on these resources.”

The takeaway: “Drawdown is very much possible,” according to Dr. Mehra. “What we need is a political will and collaboration at all stages with global, national, regional and local groups to achieve it.”

Tanzania’s seaweed economy: Listen to women, save the world

Tanzania’s seaweed economy: Listen to women, save the world

On the Tanzanian coast, in the warm waters of the Indian ocean, you’ll see a sight with the potential to save the world. Rows of sticks, embedded in the sand, rise above the shallow coastal waters. Fuzzy green lines are visible under the clear water between the sticks. Welcome to Tanzania’s seaweed farms: an international and sustainable economic force, a valuable food source, and a potential weapon against climate change, all powered by local Tanzanian women farmers.

This blue seaweed economy is a rare triple-threat: a win for women, a win for the planet, and a win for sustainable economic development. And it could all be brought down by climate change if those in power don’t take the lead of the women who know this delicate industry best.

Seaweed: Endlessly useful, seriously sustainable

Seaweed is a new superfood—and demand is rising. In addition to being used as an ingredient, it can be processed for use in countless food additives, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetic products.

“You might not know you’re consuming seaweed, but you are,” said Dr. Betsy Beymer-Farris, Director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program at the University of Kentucky. “Check your chocolate milk and you’ll see something called carrageenan in it. It comes from seaweed that is farmed along the coast of Tanzania by women.”

Other uses for seaweed:

  • Fertilizer
  • Animal feed
  • Pharmaceutical ingredient
  • Wastewater treatment tool
  • Food emulsifier
  • Cosmetic component
  • Nutrient-rich food source

Seaweed uses go far beyond chocolate milk. The first new Alzheimer’s drug in 17 years, recently approved for use in China, is seaweed-based. And it has the potential to sequester carbon—meaning it can be a weapon in our global fight against climate change.

Seaweed can absorb and store carbon that would otherwise be absorbed by the ocean, which has led to increased ocean acidification and subsequent disastrous effects on coral reefs. When that carbon is absorbed by growing seaweed, however, it can be safely stored as the plant rapidly grows—and the potential is limitless.

“If we decide to farm 10% of the ocean in seaweed, we can safely store up to 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris at the 2020 Alltech ONE Conference. “That’s the equivalent of what the entire world emits on a yearly basis.”

As seaweed grows, it provides an important habitat for fish and other aquatic species. And the climate-friendly effects don’t stop after it’s harvested: cows fed a seaweed additive belched 58% less methane—a greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

With so many uses and benefits, it’s no wonder that seaweed farming is a rapidly-growing $6 billion business, projected to top $9 billion by 2024. And in Tanzania, the main drivers of that business are the female farmers who know seaweed, and the conditions it thrives in, better than anyone.

The women’s work of farming seaweed

Some 70% of Tanzanian seaweed farmers are women, and they’ve been farming seaweed off the Tanzanian coast for decades. The area is one the top seaweed producers in the world, making the crop a powerful source of financial stability for women farmers and their families. While Tanzanian men head out to deeper waters to fish, Tanzanian women are expected to stay closer to home—making the intertidal zones of the seaweed farms their domain.

That’s how Tanzania’s women seaweed farmers started noticing that the sea level in their shallow-water seaweed farms was dropping, even as global sea levels were rising. The initial reaction of scientists was disbelief and shock.

“When I was doing research with these women in coastal Tanzania, they kept telling me the sea level was falling,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris. “And I responded by saying, ‘That’s impossible. There’s sea level rise happening as a result of climate change.’ So we took women’s ecological knowledge and we compared it to the academic literature by geomorphologists and geologists, looking at sea level rise. And what we found is that along the coast of Tanzania, the sea level actually is falling because of plate tectonic activity on the East African Rift Valley. There’s continental uplift happening, causing the sea level to fall.”

Those falling sea levels and subsequent rising temperatures mean that the farmers are no longer able to grow a specific species of seaweed, Kappaphycus alvarezii, more commonly commercially known as cottonii. Lacking access to boats to farm the species in deeper, cooler waters, Tanzania’s women farmers are missing out on a major income source, as cottonii is more valuable on the world market. Its loss is a major blow for these farmers. And to make it worse, since women lack representation in local village governments, no one is listening to them about it.

“Women’s traditional ecological knowledge matters,” said Dr. Beymer-Farris. “When we’re looking at global climate change policies, without women’s knowledge telling us that sea level is falling, there are some ramifications to ill-conceived global climate change policies that are introduced in the country.”

Those ill-conceived policies have included $8 million spent on seawalls to protect wealthy cities like Dar es Salaam from rising sea levels. Without women’s representation in local village governments, the knowledge that sea levels are, in fact, falling on Tanzania’s coast was not communicated. The result: Tanzania spent millions on a solution that fit the global narrative about climate change, but missed the situation on their own coast.

Listening to women, saving the world

Could the voices of these women farmers unlock the potential for a Planet of Plenty? Could we fight climate change through the seaweed economy in Tanzania?

In short: we could make a start. If we helped empower female representation in all levels of Tanzanian government and listened closely to the women farmers witnessing falling sea levels, economic investments could be made in ways that make sense for the local climate and local economy. We could provide women farmers with boats and swim training to help expand their seaweed farming to deeper waters. That access would allow them to carry on an ecologically sustainable industry and a lucrative source of economic growth that could benefit them, their families and their community.

With additional resources, these farmers could expand their operations even further into the ocean, creating a massive, sustainable carbon sequestration operation that also provides a multitude of other benefits: valuable habitats for ocean wildlife, a valuable food source, and a valuable commodity on the world market. Together, we have the power to help provide that win-win-win: for women, for the planet, and for sustainable economic development—all through Tanzanian seaweed, and the Tanzanian women who know it best.