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How agriculture and climate change are related: causes and effects

Agriculture and climate change are deeply intertwined. The effects of global warming on food supply are dire, whilst world population is increasing. It’s time to change the way agriculture affects the environment, and vice versa.

The relationship between agriculture and climate change is problematic to say the least, and it is putting food safety at risk. Using the “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question as an analogy, it is difficult to understand exactly when this conflict began. Over time, has the effect of global warming on agriculture and food supply been to decrease crop production or has intensive agriculture contributed to climate change by causing average global temperatures to increase?

The world population is increasing

Population increase is a determining factor that must be immediately taken into consideration if we wish to gain a clearer picture of this dichotomy. The world population is in fact rapidly increasing and according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN/DESA) it could increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050, compared to today’s 7.5 billion. At the same time, crop yields, mainly grain and corn, could decrease by 50 per cent over the next 35 years because of altered climatic conditions. A risk we must avoid and prevent, especially at this moment in history in which the number of people affected by famine is slightly decreasing. There are nearly 795 million people who regularly still don’t have enough food to eat, The State Of Food Insecurity In The World 2015 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP) calculates. This number was 1 billion in 1990-1992.

Read more: What is climate change

The effect of climate change on crop production: how is climate related to agriculture?

“Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields,” Michael Oppenheimer, professor at Princeton University and co-author of the fifth report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together scientists from all around the world). It is in this report that the scientific community came together to point out that decrease in crop yields is already taking place due to global warming.

How does agriculture contribute to climate change?

At the same time, agriculture – especially intensive agriculture, characterised by monocultures and aimed at feeding farm animals – is one of the sectors that generates the highest amount of emissions of CO2 (the main greenhouse gas). This quantity can be compared only to the sum total of the CO2 emitted by all forms of transportation.

By looking deeper, we can observe that agriculture and the deforestation it causes were responsible for one fifth (21 per cent) of all CO2 emissions in the decade from 2000 to 2010 (approximately 44 billion tonnes). This occurs because agriculture needs an increasing amount of space alongside massive amounts of chemical fertilisers now that the demand for meat and its products has increased dramatically in developing countries. This is damaging forests, which in turn would be able to absorb CO2 and mitigate anthropic (man-made) emissions. A vicious cycle that makes agriculture both a victim (given the negative effects of global warming on food supply) and a perpetrator (one of the main causes of climate change).

Most of the time, when agriculture perpetrates its crimes, it isn’t even contributing to feeding the ever-increasing world population. In fact, 95 per cent of the soy produced in the world is consumed by farm animals – mostly bovines – which demonstrates this conflict. Also, according to a study conducted by the Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg, Sweden this means that producing one kilogramme of bovine meat require 200 kilos of CO2 emissions. There are 700 million pigs in China alone, one for every two citizens, half of the global population of farm pigs. In order to feed these animals, forced to live in cages inside industrial warehouses, Beijing imports 80 million tonnes of soy, especially from Latin America and more specifically from the Brazilian Amazon where endless fields of soy are destroying one of the most biodiverse places in the world. One of the world’s green lungs.

Agriculture and climate change: is agroecology the answer?

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seems to have a clear idea of what should be done and is promoting sustainable practices in various countries through agroecology. This is a series of social and environmental measures aimed at creating a sustainable agricultural system that optimises and stabilises crop yields. These practices also tackle the effects of climate change, such as desertification and the rise in sea levels, and among them organic agriculture plays an essential role as it respects natural cycles, drastically reducing human impact.

According to the latest Eurostat data, from 2010 to today organic agriculture in Europe has grown by 2 million hectares, reaching a total of 11 million hectares of land (more that 6 per cent of the European total). If we want to continue the comparison with China – which was until recently one of the least evolved countries with regards to organic practices – this type of agriculture occupies 1.6 million hectares and generates 4.7 billion euros, according to data presented by Federbio, the Italian Federation of organic and biodynamic agriculture.

How does agriculture affect the environment? Eating habits matter, especially in Europe

Agriculture and climate change. Concluding our world tour in the Old Continent, the afore-mentioned Chalmers University of Technology in Goteborg points us in a specific direction so that we can meet the CO2 emission reduction targets set by the European Union: we must eat less bovine meat and dairy products. We can’t protect the environment without changing our eating habits. Agricultural industries and intensive farming are in fact responsible for about one quarter of CO2 emissions in Europe.

agriculture and climate change meat beef
Agriculture and climate change: soy and other types of crops end up directly in the mouths of animals in intensive farms. These creatures will later become hamburgers and other meat products

The Paris Agreement has set a clear objective: limiting the global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius”, and to do everything in our power to “limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”. In addition to the impact of energy (we of course can’t ignore the terrible damage caused by fossil fuels combustion), making agriculture and all the activities connected to it sustainable is the answer to win the battle against global warming, as well as accelerate the transition to a healthier and more just society.

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