Columnist Claire Morenon: Land use and climate change

Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 2019

If we are going to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, agriculture and food consumption patterns will have to change on a global level.

A vast new report, Climate Change and Land, from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, lays out in stark detail the impacts of human land use on global warming and the opportunities that land offers for remediation and adaptation to a changing climate.

The report details the ways that mainstream agricultural practices lead to land degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Conventional tillage methods release carbon from the soil and contribute to erosion. Livestock and rice paddies are both major contributors to rising methane emissions. Emissions of nitrogen, which in its gaseous form is a potent greenhouse gas, are rising both because of overuse of fertilizers on cropland and because of manure from livestock on pastureland.

The growing practices highlighted in the report have increased food production enormously over the past century and made affordable food more available — but this efficiency has a dark side. In the United States, federal policies have encouraged the consolidation of farm ownership and prioritized specific commodity crops like soy and corn.

The financial and cultural impacts of these changes have been visible in Massachusetts for decades. Community Involved in Sustainable Agriculture was created in 1993 by a group of farmers and agriculture advocates who sought to develop local solutions to the challenges facing local farmers in an increasingly global marketplace.

Throughout the 20th century, regional wholesale markets were replaced by national and international markets, Massachusetts farmers found it increasingly difficult to compete on price and our state’s agricultural land base fell as development pressure grew.

Today, the environmental impacts of our world’s current mainstream agricultural system have grown increasingly clear. The land degradation and increased emissions caused by prevailing agricultural practices will, in turn, threaten farmland, agricultural productivity and food security.

Last November, the federal government released its Fourth National Climate Assessment, which forecast climate change impacts throughout the United States. Farmers in the Northeast can expect unstable weather patterns, more frequent catastrophic weather events, damaging swings in temperature and increased plant disease and pest pressure.

Climate change is a complex and daunting problem, and it can feel too massive to address. Still, the IPCC report provides a path forward.

“Policies that operate across the food system, including those that reduce food loss and waste and influence dietary choices, enable more sustainable land-use management, enhanced food security and low emissions trajectories,” the report states. “Such policies can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation, reduce land degradation, desertification and poverty as well as improve public health.”

The pathway to sustainable land management policies “can be enabled by improving access to markets, securing land tenure, factoring environmental costs into food, making payments for ecosystem services, and enhancing local and community collective action.”

In other words, the way to reduce agriculture’s climate change impact, and help farmers manage climate change, is to support them in farming better.

On the local level, here’s what this looks like: Creating and sustaining good markets, and paying a fair price, so that farmers can keep farming. Making farmland available to new farmers and supporting conservation programs that protect it. Supporting research on local implementation of climate-friendly farming techniques, such as no-till, silvopasture, and combining solar energy production with crops or grazing. Providing farmers with the information and resources they need to adopt these practices.

The externalized costs of low food prices — to the environment, to food system workers and farmers and to livestock — have become increasingly clear. While we need to pay more for food in order to cover its true costs, we need to make that shift without increasing hunger and unequal access to food. It’s a tall order, but the IPCC report outlines many examples of how improving land management, reducing food waste, and shifting dietary norms can simultaneously address climate change, poverty and hunger. These goals are connected, not at odds.

Much of this work is already underway locally. None of it, by itself, is enough to change the course that we humans have set for the planet and for our own future. But the report makes it clear that local efforts are the building blocks for a global response.

Here in the Valley, that should take the form of support for local farmers and building a local food system that rewards sustainable growing practices, affords fair working conditions to farm workers, and removes barriers to local food for everyone in our community.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).