Climate change -which I refer to as climate crisis- is an ongoing topic in everyday life. Most of us are aware of it, we listen about it in the news or read articles and watch videos done by scientists reporting their findings. Their research fields of interest range from the rise in temperature all over the planet, to colder winters, stronger hurricanes, longer drought periods, snow melting of glaciers at the poles and high mountain ranges, melting of the permafrost and the resulting release of methane gas that has been trapped under the snow for millions of years ans so on. Their findings point at human activities of western civilization as the main cause for this crisis although there is important resistance to accept the evidences, especially by people related to big economic interests. There are many issues to talk about, but this time I will focus on agriculture and climate change.
Why do I refer to it as climate crisis?
Climate is constantly changing, it has always been doing so for millions of years. We can all witnes constant climate changes every day, every month, every season. First we must remember that climate is the result of a complex interaction of different phenomenae like temperature, wind, rain, topography, plant cover, position of the sun along the year, latitude, altitude and so on. Temperature for example, changes from morning to noon to evening; wind speed varies along the day and so do clouds -it may be cloudy or foggy in the morning, sun may be shining at noon and it may rain in the evening. All of these are necessary, desirable and natural changes in climate.
On the other hand, human activities have brought about some changes like increasing the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, CFC and many other gases of greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. Soils have been overloaded with chemical synthesis fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides plus heavy metals. They have also been heavily tilled and compacted by agricultural machinery. The result has been the depletion of natural soil macro and microorganisms, creating an unbalance and the loss of the natural fertility of such soils plus the destruction of their structure. Water has been the final depository of excess and runoff of chemical synthesis agricultural products and heavy metals, with the resulting pollution and increased toxicity that not only affects crops under irrigarion but living organisms in water bodies -fish and plants. These are not changes, their combined effect has caused the actual climate crisis or climate emergency as it is now called.
Finally, agricultural produce are polluted due to the persistance of chemical synthesis products in plant tissues that are eaten by people and farm animals and end up in human consumer’s bodies as well. Yes, we are all affected, sadly. It is almost impossible to avoid it, unless we develope natural methods of agriculture.
How do conventional agriculture and climate change relate?
Population growth after World War II demanded an increase in agricultural production of produce, animal feedstuff and industrial crops. To meet this increasing demand, different chemical synthesis products were developed, namely fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, nematicides and herbicides. A big amount and diversity of hybrid seeds of different economically importand species were also developed. Irrigation systems were built in many Countries as well. At the same time, different types of agricultural machinery were invented.
The use of these newly available goods was widespread by mid 20th Century and contributed to a significant increase in agricultural productivity, which was called the “Green Revolution”. In the short term, this boom was the temporary solution to meet de demand for agricultural produce in general by the growing population and industry.
Within time, nonetheless, some unexpected and undesirable issues were found. By late 60´s and early 70’s scientists discovered that DDT, a widely used insecticide in that time, not only in agriculture but in amost every household worldwide was highly persistent.They found it linked to fat and nervous tissues of animals and humans and once there it would never be released. Part of the findings were quite shocking: milk from mothers with new born babies exceeded the levels of DDT allowed for human consumption by governmental agencies, even penguins in the South Pole had DDT levels exceeding allowed limits as well, we must note that penguins live thousands of miles away from the areas where the insecticide was sprayed, wich means it was swept by ocean currents.
Traditional agriculture before the “Green Revolution”
Before the so called “Green Revolution”, agriculture relied upon natural untreated, non GMO seeds, composted manures were widely used, weeding was selective and was done using simple tools, pests were not a problem since they were controlled by predators and pathogens existing in the fields under balanced natural conditions, and at the end of the growing cicle harvest was done by hand.
In short, this way of working on the crops was closer to the natural ecosystems, that is, agriculture imitated the diversity found in nature by cropping different species of plants together, i. e. corn, string beans, bush beans, horse beans, squash and succhini were grown in association. Not only that, but by doing selective weeding all beneficial spontaneous plants were left to keep on growing like medicinal, protective and edible plants both by humans or cattle. The end result was a variety of foodstuffs that altogether exceeded the harvest volumes yielded by single crop conventional chemical synthesis based agriculture.
Appropiate technology in traditional agriculture
Before the green revolution, technology used in traditional agriculture was very simple and natural. Animals, mainly oxen, mules, horses, donkeys, yacks, water buffaloes, and llamas, among others, were used in different parts of the planet for plowing, sowing and transporting workers and harvests. They were replaced by heavy machinery that compacted the soils and did deeper tilling on them, affecting severely, in association with pesticides, the diversity of life within them, namely micro and macro organisms.
In the short term, productivity increased with the use of modern agricultural machinery, but the economic costs were much higher if we consider not only their high prices, but the need for fossil fuel, oil, grease and maintenance parts. In the long run the utilisation of heavy machinery has greatly increased the production costs -therefore the prices to final consumers, due to the higher costs of machinery, fossil fuels and replacement parts of machinery.
New trends in agriculture
The most important trend is organic agriculture in any of its different modalities like permaculture, biointensive agriculture, natural agriculture, biological agriculture, backyard agriculture, green roofs, green walls and so on.
Besides that, nowadays there is a new trend not to till soils heavily but only practice what is known as minimal tilling or no tilling. As a result, farmers, mainly small ones, are using more efficient agricultural machinery, especially smaller machines or even hand tools designed for small parcels, which are less damaging to the soil structure.
Another new agricultural practice, complementary to no tilling or minimal tilling is leaving the plant materials that are non commercial (byproducts) on the ground to break down (degrade) and by that means protect the soils from direct sunlight to keep moisture, lower the risk of wind and rain erosion, and finally add up organic material which enriches the soils and increases their fertility in a natural manner. In conventional agriculture all of those byproducts were either burnt on site, polluting the air, or taken away to be disposed of. Some of them were used as foodstuff for animals, but their nutritive value were close to nothing.
What can be done in a personal level?
If you are a farmer, especially a small one, you can adopt the new trends I mentioned in the last header, like going organic. If you are living in a town house, you can still go organic in your backyard and/or you can build a green roof or a green wall to grow your agricultural produce for your family.
You can make a compost pit and fill it with your vegetable refuse from the kitchen and dry leaves plus grass clippings from the yard or garden. If you are interested, you can click next to check my DIY easy composting methods or How to make improved compost for vegetable gardens posts.
In a different post I will write about green roofs and green walls, which are a great means of increasing your growing areas, especially in urban areas. Finally, if you have any questions or comments please leave them below and I will be more than happy to answer.
Founder of https://suppliesfororganicagriculture.com/
One thought on “Agriculture and climate change – or ongoing climate crisis?”
Very informative article Eugenio. Although I don’t understand it all I am aware of the climate problems. I love the soil and I love growing things but it’s harder for me now that’s all but our life comes from now and people must understand it has to change I’ll be looking forward to the green wall article because I’m learning new stuff I don’t know exactly what this entails but I’m going to learn from you thanks a lot for posting these things Steve