"There is no question that you can cover a lot of ground with the big machines now on the market. A lot of people seem entranced by the power and speed of those machines, which the manufacturers love to refer to as 'monsters' and 'acre eaters.' But the result is not farming; it is a process closely akin to mining. In what is left of the country communities, in earshot of the monster acre eaters of the 'agribusinessmen,' a lot of old farmers must be turning over in their graves." - Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table; On Farming and Food
What You Need To Know
The current system of agriculture in the United States will be affected in the near future by two major variables:
- The rising cost of energy for a farming economy and a distribution system based on petroleum. (1)
- Climate change and its affects on land, water, soil composition, and crops. (2)
(1) According to authors like Michael Poulan and Wendell Berry, our agricultural economy has two dominant crops – corn and soybeans – and they are used as a basic foodstuff in most products we buy at the supermarket and as feed for animals such as cattle and hogs raised in industrial feedlots. This factory production model uses extraordinary amounts of fuel, pesticides, and synthetic oil-based fertilizers. The negative by-products of this model are soil erosion, pesticide pollution, mono-cultures and genetically-modified crops, high transportation costs, concentrated animal waste production and the potential for ground-water contamination, and the mistreatment of animals.
The rise of organic and more sustainable agriculture in the last twenty years is actually a return to older methods of farming without synthetic chemicals. It promotes the use of compost, low-till or no-till methodologies to preserve and restore topsoil, crop diversity on smaller plots of land, and local control of production and harvest. It has spawned a revival of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) where local citizens invest in local farms and receive fresh or organic vegetables and fruit and grass-fed animal products. CSA's connect farmers with local consumers, seek to save transportation costs, and emphasize freshness and high quality.
(2) Agriculture is highly sensitive to climate variability and weather extremes, such as droughts, floods and severe storms. The forces that shape our climate are also critical to farm productivity. Human activity has already changed atmospheric characteristics such as temperature, rainfall, levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and ground level ozone. The scientific community expects such trends to continue. While food production may benefit from a warmer climate, the increased potential for droughts, floods and heat waves will pose challenges for farmers. Additionally, the enduring changes in climate, water supply and soil moisture could make it less feasible to continue crop production in certain regions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) concluded:
Recent studies indicate that increased frequency of heat stress, droughts and floods negatively affect crop yields and livestock beyond the impacts of mean climate change, creating the possibility for surprises, with impacts that are larger, and occurring earlier, than predicted using changes in mean variables alone. This is especially the case for subsistence sectors at low latitudes. Climate variability and change also modify the risks of fires, pest and pathogen outbreak, negatively affecting food, fiber and forestry.
An increase in average temperature can 1) lengthen the growing season in regions with a relatively cool spring and fall; 2) adversely affect crops in regions where summer heat already limits production; 3) increase soil evaporation rates, and 4) increase the chances of severe droughts.
Changes in rainfall can affect soil erosion rates and soil moisture, both of which are important for crop yields. The IPCC predicts that precipitation will increase in high latitudes, and decrease in most subtropical land regions—some by as much as about 20 percent. While regional precipitation will vary the number of extreme precipitation events is predicted to increase (IPCC, 2007).
Increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, driven by emissions from human activities, can act as a fertilizer and enhance the growth of some crops such as wheat, rice and soybeans. CO2 can be one of a number of limiting factors that, when increased, can enhance crop growth. Other limiting factors include water and nutrient availability. While it is expected that CO2 fertilization will have a positive impact on some crops, other aspects of climate change (e.g., temperature and precipitation changes) may temper any beneficial CO2 fertilization effect (IPCC, 2007).
Higher levels of ground level ozone limit the growth of crops. Since ozone levels in the lower atmosphere are shaped by both emissions and temperature, climate change will most likely increase ozone concentrations. Such changes may offset any beneficial yield effects that result from elevated CO2 levels.
Changes in the frequency and severity of heat waves, drought, floods and hurricanes, remain a key uncertainty in future climate change. Such changes are anticipated by global climate models, but regional changes and the potential affects on agriculture are more difficult to forecast.]
Why Are Food and Farming an Issue of Faith?
The United Church of Christ is committed to the principles of The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) whose intention is to build strong, sustainable, local and regional food systems that ensure access to affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food for all people at all times. CFSC seeks to develop self-reliance among all communities in obtaining their food and to create a system of growing, manufacturing, processing, making available, and selling food that is regionally based and grounded in the principles of justice, democracy, and sustainability. CFSC promotes the concept of food security through:
- Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
- Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet.
- Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.
Your food decisions matter because how food was grown, processed and transported may have demanded lots of fuel, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—all contributors to global warming—without pulling any new carbon into the soil in the process. Instead of being converted to carbon for later use by plants, as in organic farming systems, crop residues in the conventional system quickly burn up, releasing CO2—a major greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. Further, synthetic fertilizers used in non-organic farming are the largest source of carbon dioxide generation in agriculture.
Right now, American farmlands under organic production represent just a sliver of the pie. Even so, the 2.4 million U.S. acres managed organically in 2005—just 0.5 percent of all U.S. cropland—captured an estimated 2.4 billion pounds of atmospheric carbon. Imagine this: the carbon sequestration potential of 25 percent or even 50 percent of U.S. agricultural farmlands converted to organic production is 120 to 240 billion pounds per year, the equivalent of removing up to 42 million cars from the road!
Our national agricultural policy—embedded in five-year Farm Bill plans—urgently needs transformation to encourage carbon-smart farming rather than commodity crops. International trade policy can do the same if nations are allowed to give preference to crops and products with a lower carbon footprint.
What Can You Do?
- Buy food locally grown through Community Supported Agriculture. It's fresh, helps local farmers, and cuts down on transportation costs. Search online for CSA's in your area.
- Buy fresh food several times a week to cut down on packaging waste.
- Remember to take grocery bags and transparent produce bags with you to the grocery store.
- Plant your own garden of vegetables and herbs using organic methods.
- Buy organic whenever possible.
- If you use meat products, cut down on the portions and use it mainly for flavoring.
- Try a vegetarian or vegan diet for month to see if your health and grocery bills improve.
- Advocate for a strong U.S. Farm Policy that favors locally grown foods and small farmers.
- Get your congregation to switch to locally grown and Fair Trade foods.
Links and Resources