Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Klimaforum: Bio-intensive, Animal-integrated, Perennial-based, Organic Regional Food Systems as the Climate's Saving Grace

Quite a lofty title, but that's the main message given by Ronnie Cummins - founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association as well as coordinator of Via Organica, which is an organic farmers association in the states of northern Mexico.

In short Ronnie harped on "organic agriculture" as the only real way forward. Not only as a means of adapting to a weirder climate, but also as a means of mitigating climate change - sequestering excess green house gases and reducing their emissions from foodscapes.

Now, I'm "educated" (educated, meaning schooled) in agriculture, I know and believe that organic (at least the way its described in North America) has many flaws and in certain applications, like monoculture Earthbound brand lettuce, organic isn't any better than "conventional" agriculture. I pressed Ronnie on this issue, that some organic uses excessive tillage for weed control, spray and pray mentality with organic analogues, and extensive land ares under monoculture. He agreed and further qualified his vision of organic to be bio-intensive (meaning growing more food in smaller land areas), based in perennial plants, free of tillage (to preserve soil structure, function, and capacity to store carbon), necessarily incorporating animals, and ultimately being designed in the likes of the natural ecosystems that the farm is part of. This sounds a lot like conversations I hear in the permaculture and sustainable agriculture circles here in Ithaca. I felt lucky to have been immersing myself in the food revolution that is happening in the Finger Lakes (in Ronnie's words), where there so much activity to build a local food and fiber system. But there are still unanswered questions about food security and sovereignty, food production capacity, and local and national political agendas to ensure the success of agriculture in a new climate.

Ronnie identified a number of current issues, or problems, including the need for better Life- Cycle Analyses in the calculation of the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from agriculture. Some provocative new measurements that need to be included are GHG emissions from land clearing for industrial scale biofuels. Another new metric to include is the energy that goes into cooking and processing foods for industrial food systems, and methane generated from improper disposal (i.e. not composting organic matter) of organic food "waste". Ronnie argues that once these calculations are included industrial monoculture based agriculture will be shown for its true nature: a climate criminal. He contends that under the new calculations agriculture will be shown to contribute to 50% of global GHG emissions, compared to the 10-12% that the IPCC AR4 came up with. If you check out the outline for the upcoming AR5 (Assessment Report 5), which is slated to come out in 2014 issues such as food security and other socio-economic issues will be covered.

In addition to addressing issues of GHG contributions of ag, he also pointed out the very important and frustrating issue that agriculture hasn't really been invited to the negotiating tables, despite our role not only in contributing to anthropogenic GHG emissions, but our role as part of the solution too.

Hear Ronnie speak about this (I apologize for the wind noise, I left the windscreen in Ithaca):
Video thumbnail. Click to play

In addition to GHG emissions, Ronnie stresses the importance of consumer participation in the food revolution, but not without the help of labeling and regulations associations. Ronnie says that current labels such as "All Natural" are deceiving and make foods that are climate adversaries seem OK and healthy choices. A favorite rant of mine that Ronnie goes on is one about vegtarianism and veganism. As a former vegetarian of 40 years, Ronnie couldn't see how ranchers on the one hand loved their animals and on the other sent them off for sluaghter. However, in his new vision for agriculture Ronnie sees the integral function of animals - how even nature doesn't farm with animals. Even further, vegetarian and vegan soy and corn based products are climate offenders due to massive deforestation for soy plantations (as well as unsustainable beef cattle pastures). Click here for a great article enumerating the many causes and trends of Amazonian deforestation, or listen to Ronnie:

What I really appreciated about Ronnie's was his call for abandoning "doom and gloom" perspectives. He really sees this bio-intensive, animal-integrated, perennial-based agriculture as the predominant way to reduce GHG emissions as well a sequester excess CO2.

However, Ronnie self-admitantly is not a scientist, though he does believe in using science to guide action. Though some of his number claims may be spurious, I think that his conceptual ideas are right on target. He cites methods such as carbon sequestration in the soil as the major contribution to climate change mitigation and while he is discouraged by the political and economic follies that have emerged around carbon credits and markets, he sees the value in paying farmers for "a better way to farm". I agree, we should be offering incentives for growers to be maximizing ecosystem benefits, the atmosphere included. Currently, we offer incentives for growing fertilizer loving (but inefficient user) crops like corn and soy, and value only one thing: yield. This incentive structure encourages land clearing for crops, poor management and stewardship of the land, export commodity economic agendas, corn and soy byproducts ubiquitously found in our processed foods, and a devaluation of food that people can eat. Another important point that Ronnie makes is the need for scientists, activist scientists (like the world famous climatologist James Hansen ), citizens, and farmers to come together "under the same tent" to enable more action the positive transition agriculture needs if it is to part of the solution.

Ronnie, sums up with two important sentiments. One is that climate change is not just about the atmosphere, or carbon dioxide. Its about the whole earth, its about changing our economic and political systems and our scientific priorities. He mentions a climate conference in Bolivia, (there are many UN COP like conferences that lead up to the main COP. They are more focused and held in different countries throughout the year in order to prepare for the main negotiations), where the rights of Mother Earth were spelled out into an official document. His second important sentiment is that of a fierce, but uplifting and radical message. "We have 1800 days" Ronnie states, referring to that some scientists are saying that we have 6 years (though his calculation come out to just under 5) left to make our carbon emissions negative, other wise we're cooked. While that itself isn't very uplifting and quite ominous he argues that we are fighting for a new food system that is rejuvenation, rejuvenation of the atmosphere, soil, and ecology - including the socio-politico-economic ecology of humans:

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