A Two-Way Street to Disaster: Agriculture and Climate Change

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As we move through the 21st century, one of the most dangerous issues we face is climate change. It’s causing warmer global temperatures, rising sea-levels, and more severe weather events. This all means that climate change is actually the greatest threat to global food security. Changes in our environmental conditions mean that crop growth will be affected everywhere. This is especially true in developing countries in the tropics, where droughts in dry places, excessive heat, and flooding from rising sea levels will impact crop production.

Further stressing the global food security is the rising human population. Currently the world’s population is at 7.6 billion people – an already high number – but by 2050 this figure is projected to jump up to 9.5 billion. Add to all this that the average calories each person eats is increasing, and you end up in a situation where by 2050 the world will need double the current food production to feed everybody, in a global environment much more difficult for growing.

While our food security is jeopardized by climate change, our agricultural systems are also incredibly unsustainable, and act to speed up the rate of change. It’s a two-way relationship, a closed feedback loop, where food production deteriorates our climate, and climate deteriorates our growing conditions. Agriculture impacts the environment in three main ways: through deforestation to convert agricultural land, pollution and waste of water, and greenhouse gas emissions. For the rest of this post, we will show you the different impacts that farming has on climate, and also show that there are solutions for moving forward.

Deforestation

The world’s most precious environmental resource left on land is its forests, especially tropical forests. These areas are vast centers of biodiversity and help mitigate our emissions by trapping carbon dioxide that would otherwise be in the atmosphere. Ideally, these regions would be conserved and protected from being cut all over the world. But that’s not what’s happening. In order for the world to keep up with its rising demands for food production, if we continue to use conventional farming methods, there will have to be an expansion of agricultural land. This becomes a problem when the only places left that are suitable for growing crops are the green spaces: forests and grasslands.

In tropical countries, where food security is a greater risk, the best land is almost entirely forests. These are already being cleared for new farmland, and this will only continue. About 80% of global deforestation happens to make way for new farmland. These areas aren’t even ideal for agriculture, since the best regions in the world for farming have already been cleared. Tropical regions aren’t ideal for growing healthier crops, which do better in more temperate areas. Instead, crops such as soy, palm oil, and cocoa are set to expand among tropical countries, replacing vital and irreplaceable rainforests.

Water

 

Water use in agriculture is an obvious necessity; plants need nutrients, light, and water to grow. Irrigation systems have been used for thousands of years, essentially as soon as humans started growing crops. But the use of water in agriculture, even though it’s necessary, isn’t always done sustainably. Farming impacts our water health by using lots of it, wasting a large portion of that, and polluting waterways that they aren’t using.

Worldwide, agriculture irrigation accounts for 70% of water extraction, and much of this isn’t even absorbed by the plants; it’s wasted as it drains into the soil, often dragging chemicals and sediments with it into waterways.

It’s important to remember that it isn’t just about how much water is used and wasted, but also how much is polluted. Water quality is just as important as quantity. Farms release huge amounts of chemicals, sediments, drugs, and organic material into water bodies. Even many high-income countries, where restrictions on chemicals and pesticides are more strictly regulated, have already seen farming replace industry and settlements as the largest polluters of water. In the USA, agriculture is the biggest source of pollution in rivers and streams, the second largest in wetlands, and the third largest in lakes. Even further, in Europe, about 38% of all water bodies are affected by agricultural pollution.

The reason for such pollution is a demand for increased food production. As more food needs to be grown, farmers have to use more and more water and more and more pesticides to increase their yields. But why is it so dangerous?

This pollution goes into drinking water, and, especially in developing nations, the treatment of this water isn’t good enough to remove all chemicals. This means that people are actually ingesting pollutants. Pesticides are proven to have a negative effect on health, and they cause people in developing nations to experience chronic health problems.

Greenhouse Gases

The primary contributor to global warming and climate change is manmade greenhouse gas emissions, and one industry that may not come to mind as a big emissions producer is agriculture. In fact, agriculture causes 1/5 of all global greenhouse gas emissions. This is more than the emissions of the world’s cars, planes, and trains combined.

There are several types of greenhouse gases, of which the most commonly known is carbon dioxide (CO2). As agriculture has expanded and intensified to meet rising food demands, its output of CO2 has grown. The tilling of soil to prepare for planting crops has a major role in this, because it oxidizes the carbon in the soil, creating new CO2. Spreading manure also plays a role in CO2 emissions, as it causes bacteria in the fertilizer to produce the gas much faster.

But CO2 isn’t the only kind of greenhouse gas; it’s not even the most damaging. Other gases, such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), though they aren’t produced in as many industries, have a far more severe warming effect in the atmosphere. What’s more, agriculture is the main source of these. About half of all global methane emissions – a gas 26x stronger at warming than CO2 – come from agriculture, especially in the production of livestock, burning of plants to prepare fields for planting, and spreading manure. Nitrous oxide is an even worse greenhouse gas, warming at a rate 300x that of CO2, and agriculture produces 60% of it, mostly after fertilization when nitrogen is converted by bacteria.

Overlooked in these statistics is the amount of emissions caused at other stages in the agricultural process. Every stage, whether that’s making pesticides, tilling land, or shipping food from farm to market, uses energy, often from unsustainable sources. For farming to be sustainable, its emissions footprint needs a drastic reduction.

Where Do We Go?

It’s obvious. Unless it undergoes huge systematic changes, commercial agriculture is not the solution for feeding the world’s growing population. Not only will the traditional way of growing food become more difficult in a changing climate, it also makes climate change even more severe with outrageous levels of deforestation, water waste, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully, there’s a way forward.

Vertical hydroponic farming is becoming a viable option to take over as our main method of growing food. Between its ability to shrink the area of necessary land, its minimal use of water, a dependence on sustainable energy and fertilization, and the potential to grow in the center of urban communities, hydroponics solve so many problems inherent to agribusiness. At Urban Stalk, we have a vision of a world that’s able to sever its dependence on conventional agriculture, and we are working to make this vision a reality. So, if you want to join a movement that will improve food security into the future, check out our site to see the latest developments in our tech, community initiatives, and hydroponically grown produce.

For more information on this topic, visit urbanstalk.ca.

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