At a recent climate change conference at Wesleyan College, Bill McKibben and James Hansen spoke to a room of nearly 600 concerned citizens about the state of our environment, community organizing, and climate justice. According to Ronnie Cummins, Director of the Organic Consumers Association, not a single farmer was present in the room that day. With industrial agriculture responsible for anywhere from 7 to 50% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), depending on which statistics you believe, our farming systems are a crucial part of the climate change puzzle, and farmers must be engaged in today’s climate change debates.
Concerned about the lack of attention payed to the agricultural sector in past UN Climate Change Conferences, organizers put together the Agriculture and Rural Development Day (ARDD) in Copenhagen last year, an entire day of events devoted to agriculture. ARDD turned two yesterday, with farmers, policy makers, and rural development practitioners convening to discuss the role that agriculture can play in mitigating GHGs, ensuring food security, and promoting development. So have policy makers finally realized the sector’s front and center role in our climate change conundrums, and if so, how will this shape the role that farmers play in combatting climate change?
For Don McCabe, President of the Soil Conservation Society of America, the connection between governmental policy and farming practices cannot be clearer. Farmers respond to markets, which are a direct result of policy. If the enormous mitigating potential of agriculture is to be realized, governments must recognize the monetary value of environmental goods and services, and reward farmers for engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. Ronnie Cummins, a grassroots organizer form the Vietnam era, sees things very differently. Farmers, he says, cannot wait for top-down approaches. Through his work with Via Organica, a Mexican branch of the Organic Consumers Association, Cummins educates farmers about composting, biological pest control, and perennial crop production – valued over annual crops as their extensive root systems fix more carbon in the soil. After experiencing organic farming’s benefits, such as lower overheads and richer soils, farmers, says Cummins, are convinced.
No matter which approach you take, one thing is clear. Farming and environmental stewardship need to go hand in hand. If financial incentives are created, either through governmental policy or grassroots education and exposure, farmers will abandon carbon-intensive farming and engage in practices that secure our environment for generations to come.