Our industrialized food and farming systems are both driving the climate crisis and threatened by it. How did we get here? And what path can we take toward true climate resilience? In this episode, hear from IATP’s Senior Policy Analyst Shiney Varghese and Senior Advisor Timothy A. Wise on the realities of the current globalized system of industrial agriculture and an emerging alternative: Agroecology. While some groups, like IATP and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, are pushing for agroecology to be recognized at COP27 as a climate adaptation strategy, resisting the agribusiness-funded status quo is an uphill battle. This episode introduces listeners to that struggle and its climate justice implications in the lead-up to the UNFCCC's 27th annual global climate conference, happening November 6-18 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, COP27.
Farmers there were the ones who told me this is climate stupid agriculture, because why in the 21st century facing climate change would you try and get us on a path dependent on fossil fuel inputs?
00:00:16 Lilly Richard
This is the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s podcast Uprooted with a limited four part series, Talking COP27.
Every year, the United Nations hosts a huge international climate conference called the Conference of Parties, or COP, where delegates from almost 200 countries gather to negotiate, strategize, and coordinate plans for dealing with the accelerating and catastrophic threat of human-caused global heating. These conferences have been taking place since 1995, coming out of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. And after postponing 2020’s conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year marks COP number 27, which will take place from November 6-18 in Sharm el-Shiekh, Egypt. The COP is a unique moment, where almost all of the countries of the world come together to try to solve a collective threat to our survival – but it also brings out the tensions and power imbalances between countries, as well as civil society and corporate interests, in a globalized, post-colonial landscape. And climate change is an enormous, sticky systemic problem that interacts in complex ways with everything: energy, economy, ecology, agriculture, human well-being, justice, and democracy. The outcomes of these COPs aren’t the be-all end-all for climate action, but they shape what’s possible on a policy level, like which mitigation and adaptation strategies get funding and support, and whose interests get prioritized. And these outcomes have real consequences, especially when it comes to food systems and how we’re growing and distributing food on a heating and increasingly destabilized planet.
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I'm Lilly Richard. And over the course of this series, I'll be speaking with some of the policy experts at IATP about the collision between agriculture and climate change, how we expect to see that play out at COP27 and what we need to be doing to create resilient food systems and maintain a livable planet.
00:02:19 Shiney Varghese
So my name is Shiney Varghese and I am a senior policy analyst with IATP. So first of all, I want to say that our current globalized food system is facing multiple challenges. On the one hand, climate change is impacting the resilience of food producing regions and communities, affecting their ability to feed themselves, let alone produce for markets. As you know, monoculture agriculture practices have played a huge role in destroying nature's own resilience, while vertically integrated corporatized food systems have played an equally huge role in destroying the resilience of food producing communities and local economies.
That's Shiney Varghese, IATP senior policy analyst. She's talking about the industrialized monoculture farming system that dominates in the US and has been spread around the world through the process of globalization. So a quick primer. The industrialized commodity agriculture system, like fields growing only corn or soybeans, has its roots in the early 1900s. Around the turn of the century there were a number of technological advancements in farm machinery, tied to the Industrial Revolution, and Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch discovered how to create synthetic nitrogen fertilizer – of course, using a large amount of energy and fossil fuels. These advances resulted in increased yields with less labor, eventually producing way more of these commodity crops than could be consumed domestically and at lower prices. A combination of market and policy incentives drove farmers to specialize and expand, growing just one or two commodity crops for sale, rather than a variety of different products. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz famously told farmers to “get big or get out.” And they did, with small farmers driven out of business and large farms becoming the dominant model. The development of GMO seeds and associated inputs increased monocropping even more, and increased the power of agribusiness corporations to control farming systems, both in the U.S. and globally, as part of the so-called Green Revolution campaign to increase global crop yields and end hunger.
Of course, hunger didn't end. Although we're producing more these days, almost half of the crops grown today are not even meant for human consumption. They go towards animal feed, biofuels and industrial uses. And of the food that actually goes to humans, about 1/3 ends up being wasted, lost somewhere along the supply chain. And industrial agriculture is a major factor driving climate change and ecosystem collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, estimates that agriculture accounts for as much as 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That includes the carbon released from land use change, like cutting down forests to create more agricultural land, as well as direct methane emissions from cattle and nitrous oxide from nitrogen fertilizers – not to mention the supply chain emissions associated with transporting crops all around the world and manufacturing the fertilizer and other chemical inputs. As IATP has pointed out for years, this model of farming funnels profits upward towards consolidated agribusiness corporations, while depleting and polluting the landscape and reducing the power and real income of farmers and farm workers who actually produce our food. And it's driven by this profit incentive that's also shaped by trade policy, with this pressure to produce high yields of commodity crops for export, rather than meeting the food needs of a local population. It's also created an entrenched agriculture system that's not only contributing to global warming, but is also incredibly vulnerable to shocks like heat waves, droughts and floods that are all becoming more common as our climate changes. Here's Tim Wise, a senior adviser at IATP and a senior research fellow at Tufts University.
Well, in Africa what you'll hear from farmers is that small scale farmers face erratic rainfall, rising sea levels, more intense storms, massive increases in heat. We forget about that. We used to call it global warming and that was there was a reason for that. And what I heard about when I was researching my book all over Africa, the prescriptions coming from the powers that be, Gates Foundation with its Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa and others are calling for, like you said, monocropping of a narrow range of food crops fed by synthetic fertilizer which is derived from fossil fuels and has been shown to be a tremendously powerful greenhouse gas in terms of the emissions. IATP’s research with others showed that it was even more than people had estimated previously. Which, again, persists for more than 100 years in the atmosphere and is 265 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
That's nitrous oxide?
Nitrous oxide coming off of fields. And farmers there were the ones who told me this is climate stupid agriculture, because why, in the 21st century facing climate change, would you try and get us on a path dependent on fossil fuel inputs? Simple enough. What could be stupider than that from a climate perspective? In their – from their perspective?
Tim has been working with AFSA, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, a coalition of African smallholder farmers and civil society groups that have been resisting the industrialized green revolution model of agriculture on that continent and pushing for an alternative: agroecology. AFSA will be at COP27 as well, trying to get agroecology recognized as a fundamental climate adaptation strategy, especially for Africa, which is already facing some dire climate impacts. Agroecology is a word you're going to hear a lot on this podcast. So what is it? “A systems approach to agriculture, agroecology is a science, a practice, and a movement." As a collection of agricultural practices, it overlaps a lot with what's sometimes called regenerative, permaculture, organic or sustainable agriculture. It involves growing a diversity of crops and bringing together traditional and scientific knowledge to work with ecological systems in a holistic way and reduce the need for inputs like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. This can mean things like using cover crops and perennials to help build up soil health and suppress weeds, or integrating grazing animals into farming systems and using their manure to fertilize the fields. But agroecology as a movement goes further, looking at food systems holistically and centering the needs and voices of the producers and the communities they feed. It's guided by 13 central principles that include circularity, biodiversity, equality and democratic participation. These principles make agroecology a little harder to pin down than something like regenerative agriculture, but also harder for corporate interests to co-opt. And because it takes a systems approach that's diversified and responsive to local contexts, agroecology is potentially a lot more resilient than monocropped input-dependent agriculture.
Now that's exactly what I saw in community after community where farmers were doing it differently. I mean, there's a community in Mozambique that had withstood, I mean the last growing season temperatures, had hit 110 degrees, which was unheard of there. Drought. River dried up. They're right near the ocean. As the river flows into the ocean, that's their irrigation source. Riverbed dried up with the drought, rising sea levels, sea comes back up the irrigation channels and floods their land with saltwater, basically killing the land for years. So climate change just wreaking havoc on these farmers. And, you know, I was like, how are you surviving? And they said, we're okay. I was like, well, how are you okay? And it's like, oh, agroecology. We're growing multiple crops. They don't all fail. We have varieties of land planted in different crops. Some are lowland, some are highland. Basically in diversity, there’s strength. And like you said, in diversity there is climate resilience, because if one thing fails, not everything necessarily fails. And if you've restored the soils, it holds moisture, so in a drought you don't lose as much. In a flood, if there's roots in the ground, you don't get the topsoil washed away. There's just so many ways that it that it is the insurance policy they need against climate change. It was great to really see it up close in every country that I researched for my book. The basic principle being to farm with nature, not against it, to reduce inputs to the lowest possible extent and mirror natural systems as a way of increasing and maintaining soil fertility and output. And what makes it serve as both mitigation and adaptation is that the mitigating side is you're not – you're actually creating carbon sinks out of your fields instead of carbon emitters or greenhouse gas emitters. And again, Green Revolution takes them in exactly the opposite direction from that. And ironically enough, it's the Green Revolution folks who claim that’s still “climate smart” agriculture. And it's “climate smart,” according to them, because the theoretical yields you get from growing more corn mean that you're better off and you have more resilience because you have more corn. So even though it's only one crop, and even though they're failing to deliver the yields, that's the claim, that it's climate smart.
That's, I mean it's very interesting that it seems like it's sort of recreating the American industrial agriculture model. I mean, I'm from Iowa and I just grew up surrounded by corn and soy fields that are like destroying our water and soil over here and so just exporting that model.
No, that was the core. That was the core question of my book Eating Tomorrow, was we have this model or this agricultural system we created in Iowa that really doesn't seem to be working well for Iowa or farmers or the environment or anything else. Why are we exporting him to Africa?
And why are we?
Well, I mean the conclusion I came to in the book is because that it really serves the companies well. The input companies, the Monsanto-Bayer, Corteva, all of the seed companies benefit 'cause they get to sell more seeds. The fertilizer companies benefit 'cause they get to sell more fertilizer. The traders benefit 'cause the markets, they're opened up and there's more production, so cheaper goods. With oversupply like in the United States, and they can get a price, a good price on those volumes trading. The more you trade in international markets, the more they make. Machine dealers. If you can get farmers doing mechanized agriculture, you can sell more of your machines. All of those, all of those companies stand to gain.
Up against transnational agribusiness companies and powerful trade interests like the United States, proponents of agroecology are facing an uphill battle. But they are gaining traction in some international institutions like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and with some governments in Africa like Mali, which has been putting money towards bio-fertilizers. This is especially important as the price of synthetic fertilizer has skyrocketed, so reducing dependence on it becomes an economic necessity. But even as agroecology has gained prominence in recent years, it hasn't received much funding or attention on the global stage as a climate adaptation strategy. Here's Shiney again.
The ills are very well known, but most policy proposals continue to pedal the same cash-output-focused approach in newer bottles. You might have heard of land-based carbon offsets and carbon markets. That is what happens when such exclusive cash-output-focused approach to farming intersects with climate mitigation. Agroecological approaches on the other hand, emphasize the need to take a system-wide approach, not one outcome at the expense of another one. So it starts with the centrality of the food producing communities in the decisions regarding what they want to cultivate, how they want to cultivate to ensure their own and their workers fair returns, as long as they do it in a manner that conserves and enhances crop and animal biodiversity, increases the water holding capacity of the soil and enhances biodiversity. And both of these of course, helping to build a climate resilience. And second part, ensuring that their operations, including food processing and marketing, help support local economies. All of this helping with with the adaptive capacity of the community, not just the farm or the food producers, but of the entire community. So in that sense, it's really kind of holistic. So I just want to touch on another part also. I earlier said that international and national institutions continue to support this agriculture, right, the bad kind of agriculture. In fact, even today, the lion’s share of that support goes into conventional agriculture. I just want to bring attention to that. So a recent study, I just want to quote that from Coventry Centre in the UK, showed that less than 3% of the agriculture-focused overseas development funding from EU to Rome-based UN food and agricultural organizations like the FAO, IFAD, World Food Program – so they looked at between 2016-2018 – less than 3% went to sustainable agriculture practices. No money for transformative agricultural solutions. And that study focused on Europe, which has been in the forefront when it came to supporting agroecological transitions over the last decade. So, so especially when you know agroecology has been making some advances in the UN, CFS and FAO, they have been very supportive. So I expect that post 2018, we will see more increase in their percentage in the coming years, but I just wanted to point out that there's no money going to transformative agroecological transitions, even from EU, in this period. And sustainable agriculture, which also includes kind of organic agriculture, only three percent. 97% continue to go to the, you know, the same.
The monoculture industrial agriculture, Green Revolution model?
Yes, yeah. So you might wonder why there is this continued support for regressive agriculture policy that destroys the environment.
I do wonder that!
And that's where the exclusive focus on profit-making motive comes in the way of transformative solutions. So in fact, even at the COP, we see that push for what they call a net zero solution. Basically, it means that those you know emitting greenhouse gases can continue to do so as long as someone else, somewhere else, happens to be involved in some mitigation – irrespective of whether that is new, additional action being initiated to reduce greenhouse emissions or not.
So back to the COP. We've just scratched the surface on some of the ways that agriculture intersects with climate change and with the other interconnected polycrises that are currently threatening life on Earth. A message that keeps coming through is that the industrial system is not a resilient system. In fact, it's the opposite. As the impacts of climate change become more present and more severe, climate discussions like those at the COP are focusing not just on mitigation strategies, but adaptation. That's things like, how do we protect cities from rising sea levels? How do we keep populations safe during deadly heatwaves? And how do we make sure we're actually going to be able to grow and distribute enough food to sustain ourselves under extreme and unstable conditions? And who decides what adaptation strategies we pursue, and who's going to pay for it?
Honestly, it's such a difficult negotiation. I mean, they've been fraught up to now. I think the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa is mobilizing to take a good delegation there, working with allies. And I think what they really hope is to put agroecology on the map as an adaptation and mitigation strategy, which it really hasn't been up to now. And they have a campaign in Africa with governments to get African governments to include agroecology as part of their national adaptation strategies. And so those national adaptation plans are hopefully an opening of a door to allow civil society to demand that more resources go toward agroecology, with that climate lens. hat they could really use is Green Climate Funds and Loss and Damage Funds to fund that kind of work for governments and civil society organizations. ‘Cause 50% were supposed to go to the poorest countries and the most vulnerable communities for adaptation that is defined by those farmers themselves, which would be agroecology. I think that's their hope.
The conversation around climate and agriculture has been present at the COP in some form since the beginning, but not a major part of the actual negotiations between nations. The Koronivia joint work on agriculture was launched at COP 23 in 2017. It's basically a series of meetings and workshops that happen at the COP to discuss strategies for agricultural adaptation and mitigation. But so far it hasn't produced any major recommendations or outcomes. And in other aspects of COP discussions and negotiations around agriculture, we're seeing a lot of trust placed in false solutions that aren't effective for adaptation or mitigation, and often make things worse. Things like relying on carbon offsetting, as Shiney mentioned, to try to cancel out emissions without making real cuts. I'll dig deeper into that and other false solutions over the next couple of episodes. The COP process moves slowly, but climate change and food system instability are moving fast. In the next episode, we'll dive into the conference itself, how it works, what its history is, and how its outcomes actually impact policy and practice, especially when it comes to land use, food systems and global justice. We'll take a look at some of the tensions within the conference and start to think about what role civil society groups like IATP can play in shaping the conversation, and where we need to think beyond the COP. Join us again next week for Uprooted: Talking COP27.
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