Small scale, big impact: Agroecology and climate change

Small scale, big impact: Agroecology and climate change

Can small-scale farmers make a difference when it comes to climate change?

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine when you consider the scale of the challenge. Global warming has led to higher temperatures, rising sea levels, more extreme weather and more forest fires than ever before. Efforts to mitigate the effects of climate are being made on an international scale with multinational agreements like the Paris Accord. It will take a massive effort to combat the effects of greenhouse gases on our planet. Agriculture is a sector that has the potential to make a major impact on climate change — but what can small-scale farmers do?

It’s not a question with a single answer. But the principles of agroecology could hold the key to helping small-scale farmers adapt to and even thrive within our changing climate — and ultimately make a difference in the future of the planet.

What is agroecology?

In short, agroecology is a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture that takes into account more than just growing food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, agroecology “seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while taking into consideration the social aspects that need to be addressed for a sustainable and fair food system.”

Some people call it a science. Others call it a movement, or a farming system. However you classify it, agroecology focuses on using natural resources without damaging them, while also creating a sustainable food system that feeds communities and builds strong local economies, ultimately doing the most good for the most people.

From the United States to Ethiopia, organizations around the world are advocating for agroecology and supporting the small-scale farmers who are paving the way to a more sustainable future.

Fighting climate change, one farm at a time

There’s no one set of agroecological principles that apply globally — every location, community and microclimate is different, and will require different solutions. But many of the practices and principles directly fight climate change, both individually and (especially) as a farming system. Here’s a few:

  • Reducing or eliminating pesticides. Instead of using chemical-filled pesticides that contribute to climate change, agroecological farming systems rely on biological methods, like plants that repel pests. It doesn’t always have to be a full-scale rejection of pesticides — even reducing the use of chemical pest-management methods can help fight climate change. With small-scale and family farms making up around 75% of the world’s agricultural land, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides can quickly add up to a major impact.
  • Creating healthier soils. Agroecological farming also focuses on improving soil health. This category includes practices like increasing the amount of organic matter in the soil, planting cover crops that help replenish nutrients in the soil, integrating livestock with crop production and, vitally, sharing knowledge among local farmers to help build better practices for the future. Soil contains more than double the carbon that is in the atmosphere — and soil with more carbon is better for plants, for the planet and for farmers. Healthier soil holds more water and maintains more nutrients, making crops less at risk of loss due to the extreme weather that’s become a signature effect of climate change.
  • Diversifying crops. Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket and relying on one crop, agroecological farmers plant a variety of crops suited for their location and microclimate. Not only does this help mitigate the risk of a single crop being lost to disease, pests or weather — it also fights soil degradation and increases the amount of diverse foods available to local communities. Crops can be rotated, allowing the soil to replenish itself and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. The long-term results: healthier soils, more resilient farmers and less food insecurity, even in the face of a changing climate.
  • Reusing waste. From manure to crop residue, there is always some waste in the agricultural production process. But agroecology recognizes that there’s potential in these products. Rather than burning crop residue like corn stalks — a practice that produces even more greenhouse gas emissions — that organic matter can be worked back into the fields to enrich the soil or used as animal feed. Waste from livestock can be used as an energy source in place of fossil fuels, further reducing global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
  • Sharing knowledge. Agroecology recognizes the importance of the social aspects of agriculture. By sharing best practices and spreading information about what works best for certain crops, challenges or climates, agroecology encourages small-scale farmers to create a pool of knowledge to help everyone learn and improve their own operations. Shared knowledge helps turn individual action into collective impact, amplifying the power of each farmer to help fight climate change.

The win/win of agroecology

Agroecology isn’t just good for the planet — it’s good for farmers, too. According to a report by Springer Nature, farmers are experiencing record low crop yields due to extreme weather and an increase in pests and diseases that destroy their crops. Agroecological practices focus on solving the challenges farmers are facing today: diversifying crops to help mitigate the risk of crop loss, reducing pests through organic methods and improving soil health to maximize water retention.

Agroecological methods can also help small-scale farmers save money — another vital short-term win that helps incentivize these methods. Practices like recycling crop and livestock waste, reducing the amount of water needed to grow healthy crops and growing cover crops that can feed livestock all help reduce costs for small-scale farmers who are working to make the most of every penny.

Ultimately, agroecology is a system that helps create long-term change through near-term improvements like these. By implementing agroecological practices to help make crops more resilient and soils more healthy, small-scale farmers can start to see better, more profitable harvests in the climate we have today — while also making an impact on the climate of the future. Add up the impact from the more than 570 million small-scale and family farms across the globe, and the potential is almost limitless. That’s how agroecology can fight a challenge as massive as climate change: one planting season, one harvest and one small-scale farm at a time

What if farmers were paid to fight climate change?

What if farmers were paid to fight climate change?

Irreversible global warming is almost inevitable.

The key word there is “almost.”

Scientists agree that we need to stay below a two-degree global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels to avoid “catastrophic climate effects,” as the Natural Resources Defense Council has said. To that end, 195 nations around the globe signed the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, through which participating countries agreed to mitigate their impact on global warming and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The problem? It’s not going to be enough.

The issue with greenhouse gas mitigation

“If all of the nations in the world comply with the commitments they made in the Paris Accord, we’re still going to massively miss the emissions limit,” said Aldyen Donnelly at the 2020 Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. “We will be still discharging 15 billion tons of CO2 equivalent per year — more than the most we can afford to be discharging if we want to cap warming at two degrees by 2100.”

But Donnelly, co-founder and director of carbon economics at Nori, a carbon removal marketplace, cautioned listeners not to lose hope. There’s another, better climate change solution: not reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting into the air but, instead, removing carbon from the atmosphere. And it starts not with nations, governments or corporations, but with farmers.

The double benefit of regenerative farming

Nori’s climate change solution involves removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil by using regenerative agricultural methods. In this model, farmers shift away from our current, intensive methods of producing food, fiber and livestock — without sacrificing acreage.

“This isn’t about converting cropland back to grasslands and forests,” said Donnelly. “We know how to produce food and fiber while implementing practices that are rebuilding the soil organic carbon stocks. Scientists generally believe that the adoption of regenerative and conservation practices can recover soil organic carbon stocks worldwide to the level they were at 300 years ago, before we introduced intensive management practices.”

These practices aren’t new. Methods like planting cover crops, reducing or eliminating soil tillage, crop rotation and silvopasture — the integration of trees and pasture for grazing livestock — have been utilized for decades, centuries and even millennia by farmers across the globe. By encouraging farmers to adopt these practices, Nori’s climate change solution requires no new technology — just a change in mindset.

The potential benefits of following these carbon sequestration practices in agriculture on a large scale are enormous. According to Donnelly and Nori, regenerative and conservation agricultural methods have the potential to remove up to 25 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere — more than enough to cover the 15-billion-ton gap left by greenhouse gas mitigation. And above and beyond the carbon sequestration, these practices lead to healthier, more productive soils over time — a major benefit for a growing population with growing nutritional needs.

“There is no other potential strategy that gives you two benefits at the same time,” said Donnelly. “So why would we spend any money on mitigation strategies that don’t give us those co-benefits before we’ve exploited all of our opportunity to invest in our food and fiber producers’ potential to deliver both these benefits?”

Incentivizing better practices

So how do we get farmers to make the switch?

It involves investing. Platforms like Nori allow individuals and businesses to pay farmers who are engaging in these climate-friendly practices and are doing their part to reduce the greenhouse effect. While it may not be practical to eliminate all carbon emissions in our lives —  which are caused by things like flights, car travel and the electricity in our homes — we can offset the effects of those greenhouse gases by investing in farms that are sequestering carbon and making clean energy a priority.

Nori’s marketplace has already garnered great interest and achieved great success.

“Since last October, we have issued 20,000 carbon sequestration credits, which, in the Nori marketplace, are called Nori carbon removal tons, or NRTs,” said Donnelly. “To date, all of the NRTs we’ve listed for sale on our website have sold out, and they tend to sell out quickly. The average price buyers have paid has been $16.50 per ton. And they’ve been sequestering, on average, nine tenths of a ton per acre, per year.”

While those numbers may seem small, they can add up quickly. And this direct market for carbon offsets doesn’t just incentivize farmers to make the switch to regenerative agriculture practices, one acre at a time. It also allows individual consumers to take charge of their carbon footprint, empowering them to push back in the face of the seemingly impossible challenge of climate change. Where multinational corporations or countries can work slowly, an individual market that pays farmers to implement climate change solutions can help build a grassroots movement toward more sustainable agricultural practices and a healthier planet for all.

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.”