Food, Farming and Climate Change: It’s Bigger than Everything Else



Fair World Project: small scale farmers cool the planet.

When we think of climate change and global warming, visions of coal-fired power plants and solar panels come to mind. Policy discussions and personal action usually revolve around hybrid cars, energy-efficient homes and debates about the latest technological solutions. However, the global agriculture system is at the heart of both the problem and the solution.

Industrial agriculture is a key driver in the generation of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, heavy machinery, monocultures, land change, deforestation, refrigeration, waste and transportation are all part of a food system that generates significant emissions and contributes greatly to global climate change. Industrial agricultural practices, from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to synthetic fertilizer-intensive corn and soy monocultures, genetically modified to tolerate huge amounts of herbicide, not only contribute considerable amounts of GHGs, but also underpin an inequitable and unhealthy global food system. Modern conventional agriculture is a fossil fuel-based, energy-intensive industry that is aligned with biotech, trade and energy interests, versus farmer and consumers priorities.

Compared to large-scale industrial farms, small-scale agroecological farms not only use fewer fossil fuel-based fertilizer inputs and emit less GHGs, including methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide (CO2), but they also have the potential to actually reverse climate change by sequestering CO2 from the air into the soil year after year. According to the Rodale Institute, small-scale farmers and pastoralists could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available, safe and inexpensive agroecological management practices that emphasize diversity, traditional knowledge, agroforestry, landscape complexity, and water and soil management techniques, including cover cropping, composting and water harvesting.

In addition to their adaptability and resilience in the face of climate change, small-scale farmers play many other critical roles, from feeding their local communities to providing ecological services to the global community. As described by UC Berkeley Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri, small-scale farms act as biodiversity reservoirs. Compared to large-scale industrial monoculture operations, which plant just one variety of one crop, small-scale farmers often cultivate dozens, if not hundreds, of varieties and species used for food, fiber, fodder, fuel and medicine. It is not uncommon for small-scale farmers to plant a healthy genetic diversity of crops adapted to local conditions and well-suited for climatic variability and pest resistance. Agricultural biodiversity not only nourishes local farming communities and hedges against market and weather fluctuations, but it also fosters critical habitat for other flora and fauna. Farmer knowledge and social capital are crucial common denominators for vibrant and functional farming communities. Without the traditional knowledge of farmers, there is little hope to address climate change on the farm in a meaningful way.

Fair trade is often characterized as a “trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.” Fair trade principles include capacity building, long-term direct trading relationships, payment of fair prices and wages, no child, forced or otherwise exploited labor, workplace non-discrimination, gender equity, and freedom of association, among others. But fair trade is proving to be more than its original mandate, as it relates to climate change. Fair trade premiums — the additional sums of money beyond the fair trade price that are paid to producers for social, environmental and economic development projects — are proving to be effective vehicles for addressing climate change at the local level.

For example, COOCAFE, a coffee cooperative in Costa Rica, used its fair trade premiums to greatly reduce the amount of water used to wash coffee beans, allowing for other farmers to plant shade trees around their crops, which is good for both the quality of their crops and the environment. In Sri Lanka, the Serendipol fair trade organic coconut project uses its fair trade premium to provide free compost to all member farmers. In Uganda, tea farmers are reproducing drought-resistant varieties for distribution to other growers.

Author and activist Rebecca Solnit famously said of climate change that “It’s bigger than everything else.” Climate change is at the intersection of many social and environmental justice issues, and it is forcing us to question every aspect of our society and economy, including how we produce and distribute our food. The stakes are certainly high — and the window of opportunity is quickly closing. Facing down climate change is both a challenge and an opportunity. Recreating a political economy that fosters and safeguards small-scale farmers is critical to addressing not only climate change but hunger and inequality as well. There are no policy “silver bullets” per se, but reforming the trade, subsidy and financial sectors is a good start.

By Ryan Zinn, Dr. Bronner’s Organic & Fair Trade Coordinator and Fair World Project’s Political Director