Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The End of Nature: Climate Change, Organic Agriculture and Local Food by Bill Duesing

From CT NOFAs Organic Advoacate

The End of Nature: Climate Change, Organic Agriculture and Local Food

By Bill Duesing

Over seven billion of us live on the only habitable real estate in the known universe. The living things that have evolved on this planet over billions of years provide our life support systems.

The Earth's ecosystems produce clean air, clean water, fertile soil and most importantly, a stable climate.

There is a beauty and integrity to nature that is rarely found elsewhere. We are putting that all at risk by the way we live.

Twenty five years ago in The End of Nature, the 1989 book credited with being the first book on Climate Change for the general public, Bill McKibben wrote:

"The idea of nature will not survive the new global pollution — We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning."

"The idea in this case is 'Nature,' the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died. . . . its forces — the wind, the rain, the sun — were too strong too elemental. . . . We have produced the carbon dioxide — we are ending nature."

A Happy Topic

I was hoping to write about the happy connections between a healthy soil ecosystem and a healthy human micro-biome and about the research which shows the many ways that growing food is good for the grower's health. (I suspect that the latter applies more to gardeners and market farmers than to those who farm GMO monocultures, however.)

But the news about climate change is so frightening, the likely disruption in our food supply so large, and the potential of organic agriculture and rethinking our food system to both mitigate and help us adapt to climate change is so strong, that I'm changing directions.

Climate Change and Food

For just a few examples of the likely impacts of climate change on food, consider that most of California is now in a severe to exceptional drought. Two hundred thousand acres of prime farmland may not be planted because there isn't enough water.

As the seas rise, the areas of Florida where most of our warm weather vegetables are grown in the winter will be among the first to flood. See the possible new coastlines here.

This field near Homestead FL and others like it are the source of many of the 
summer vegetables we eat in the winter. In mid January they were 
harvesting sweet corn and tomatoes. Tomatoes for shipping are 
hard and green. The farmstand had delicious ripe heirloom tomatoes. 

Many predictions put this area under water in this century. 
Studies suggest that with climate change food will get more expensive, maybe a lot more. That is especially the case with two billion more people to feed in the next 36 years.

And most of us who grow food have witnessed the many ways growing conditions have changed in the past several decades. Weather weirding is completely consistent with what we know about climate change's effects.

Globally, we are still releasing greenhouse gases, the ones we have released will be around for a long time, and the positive feedback loops climate change initiates (think the melted Arctic ice cap now absorbing more solar energy and large scale fires and insect invasions wiping out carbon absorbing forests) are so destructive, that we need to take action.

This is serious. Very serious.

How can organic agriculture help mitigate and adapt to climate change?

In many ways.

Start with the soil, where organic methods should always start.

Good organic management increases the organic matter content in the soil with cover crops, compost applications, crop rotations and hopefully much less tillage. All of these can increase the carbon in the soil and keep it out of the air.

Soils with more organic matter content hold more water. This is very important with greater variability in rainfall.

Of course, organic agriculture avoids the fossil fuel based chemical fertilizers which release greenhouse gases when they are made and release more when they are applied to the soil. There they speed up decomposition in processes that produce both carbon dioxide and the more powerful greenhouse gases, nitrous oxides.

Organic wastes which are composted carefully and added to the soil also sequester carbon instead of releasing it as methane if buried in a landfill or as carbon dioxide if burned.
Organic farming and gardening are based on increasing biodiversity, one of the most threatened of Earth's life support systems. Increasing an ecosystem's biodiversity increases its resilience in the face of environmental stresses.

Organic agriculture minimizes the use of off-farm inputs, especially synthetic pesticides, many of which are energy intensive.

The oceans are rising and becoming warmer and more acid.
How can local agriculture help us adapt to climate change?

The local agriculture that is flowering nearly everywhere these days increasingly serves local markets so there is less transportation (and more flavor and nutrition).

Having a more local food supply will be important as climate change disrupts long industrial supply chains. The narrower diversity of industrial monocultures is more likely to be disrupted by climate change. Increasing the diversity of our crops and diets is one of the best strategies for the future.

All of these wonderful local efforts will help. They are exciting because so many people are involved and so many consumers are very supportive.

The new local, good food system is essential if we are to slow down and adapt to climate change, but all the efforts in that direction are probably not enough.

Food is a good and useful place to start. How we eat may even be the best place to start planning a healthy and sustainable future-a future where we can all eat and work toward a stable climate.

We need to take back control from the Industrial system.

What does the industrial food system want? It wants us to buy more, more, and more of more complicated, more distant, more highly processed and often less healthful packaged food. (Look at the millions and millions of dollars being spent on ads during this weekend's football game encouraging people to eat junk and processed food and drink soda and beer.)

The industrial system's wants are not compatible with a stable climate.

Cheap Energy = Junk Food

Who needs this?
Our food system evolved the way it did because we had cheap and plentiful fossil energy and vast ignorance of the effects of that fuel use on the atmosphere and the climate.

In the 1950s, it made business sense to sell us a brand-spanking new, energy-intensive container with each eight or 12 ounces of flavored sugar water. Facing the destructive promise of climate change, perhaps we should re-consider that.

For the beef "industry" it makes sense to use their check-off dollars to push us to eat more beef and to rabidly attack any suggestion that there could be a problem. with raising and eating more industrially-raised beef.

Nestle, the largest global food company is targeting those of us who are over 35 years old with its new chocolate toffee crunch cereal. That may be the last thing that people need to eat, but to Nestle the profits are promising. 

We also don't do a very good job of including all the costs in the price of our food and beverage products. From energy, water and farm subsidies, to environmental and human health costs, many of the actual costs of products are borne by the taxpayers and the commons.
In a world where we should leave most of the fossil fuels in the ground, we need to think differently, very differently.

Perhaps a hefty carbon tax would help us sort out waste energy usage from what is really necessary.

Even with serious action on climate change, we are likely to see many serious disruptions. In almost every case, we'll do better if we have many sources of healthy foods nearby.

Earth's Resilience
Earth and its life forms are resilient. When we stopped using DDT, the ospreys and eagles that the pesticide pushed almost to extinction recovered nicely. Since chlorofluorcarbons were banned, the ozone hole has been mending.

In the face of the twin challenges of climate change and of feeding nine billion people in just a few decades we should use creating a fair and sustainable food system as the guiding mission in planning for our future on this planet.

One of the big benefits of the fight for GMO labeling is that people with many different interests are realizing that their common interest in health, democracy, fairness and the environment means that they need to work together.

The habitability of Earth is at stake.


  1. Great read, Bill ~ and fab food for thought *and* action.

  2. The increasingly inhospitable growing conditions in California, Florida and elsewhere underscore (for me at least) the need to preserve the integrity of all local lands that are, or could be, capable of furnishing us (the humans and non-humans of this region) with food.

    Where I am from (Massachusetts), I (and others) have noticed a burgeoning trend in locating large-scale (>1 acre, >1 MW) PV (photovoltaic) array on farmland, thereby reducing (if not eliminating) its ability to produce food, fiber, habitat or other benefits.

    Unfortunately, some of these large-scale PV ground-based installations are being euphemistically termed "solar gardens" or "solar farms". While I have seen PV installations of a few PV panels on poles surrounded by greenery that could be fairly described as a garden setting, most ground-based, larger-scale (>200 KW) PV systems are pretty much the antithesis of a garden. Also – the similar term “solar farm” has always personally bothered me, especially when it is applied to a former natural and beautiful working farm or forest landscape converted info an industrialized, sterile sea of PV panels surrounded by a chain-linked, barbed-wire-topped fence. This resembles a farm about as much as a typical “industrial park” resembles a park, which is to say not very much at all.

    In Massachusetts (and, I supect in CT as well), we have so many brownfields, closed landfills, highway medians, Parking garage roofs, parking lots and other spots (see, e.g., the wonderful example of the solar carport at the REI store in Framingham, MA - http://www.rei.com/share/rei-blog/2012/08/from_asphalt_to_elec.html ) never mind the roofs of warehouses, "big box" retail stores, etc., to accommodate a huge increase in solar PV generation without needing to convert natural or working landscapes for this purpose. I think we would surely regret allowing our scarce arable land to be covered up in solar panels if we can't import most of our food anymore, as we in New England are currently doing.

  3. This is one awesome blog post.Really thank you!
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