Reframing Agriculture In The Climate Change Discussion

11/16/2016 03:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2017

When it comes to climate change, the problem and the solution may be one and the same.

This week in Marrakesh, government leaders will meet for the last leg of the UN Climate Change Summit (COP 22) and it is clear we are at a critical moment in our history. Man-made changes to the climate threaten humanity's security on Earth. Though we are taking steps globally to reduce emissions from industry, transportation and heat production, another source accounts for 24 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

That problem is farming.

Agriculture is the largest-single contributor to the climate crisis. The UN's 2013 Trade and Environment Review points to agriculture as responsible for 43-57 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. The current degenerative farming system results in the loss of 50-75 percent of cultivated soils' original carbon content. By destroying soil nutrients through the overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, conventional agriculture jeopardizes food security and nutrition, and reduces ecosystems' resiliency to flood and drought by removing the protective buffer provided by soil's organic carbon.

Industrial agriculture is additionally responsible for large-scale degradation through factory farming, waste lagoons, antibiotics and growth hormones, GMOs, monocultures, and prolific use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But there is a biological process for reversing this damage and providing climate stabilization that's tried and tested, available for widespread dissemination now, costs little and is locally adaptable.

That solution is farming.

By shifting from degenerative agriculture to a system more in harmony with nature, we can rejuvenate soil, grasslands and forests; replenish water; promote food sovereignty; and restore public health and prosperity -- all while cooling the planet by drawing down billions of tons of excess carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it belongs. A 2014 Rodale Institute report identifies regenerative, ecological agriculture's ability to sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available, inexpensive natural and organic management practices.

The idea of healthy soil as a sponge for carbon is emerging as a shovel-ready solution to climate change. Agriculture can be a low-tech boon to addressing climate change, but only if we take an active role in helping to mainstream and scale up efforts to promote healthy soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 14 billion acres of pasture and rangeland, and 10 billion acres of forest land.

There are farmers and agricultural scientists in every corner of the world committed to and excited about the results of regenerative agriculture's potential in mitigating both climate issues and food insecurity, and the beneficial impacts have been well documented.

In one example that I'm very familiar with, Natural Agriculture, which does not use any additives and focuses on reviving soil fertility, has not only helped farmers to improve crop yields to feed their families and generate income, but also supported the long-term health of land and natural resources for future generations. The results of Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia - increased yield and surpluses, healthier soil, and crops able to withstand damage caused by flooding - have changed the landscape of farming in rural Zambia. The program has increased from 20 farm families in 2004 to more than 5,000 farmers today. It takes farmers away from dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil quality to a self-sustainable approach to farming that honors the purity of the soil and enables a natural process of soil carbon restoration.

Regeneration International's Ronnie Cummins puts it eloquently, "One of the best-kept secrets in the world today is that the solution to global warming and the climate crisis (as well as poverty and deteriorating public health) lies right under our feet, and at the end of our knives and forks."

It is thus fitting that on the very last day of COP 22, there will be a side event on "Re-Framing Food and Agriculture: From Degenerative to Regenerative" as a way forward and I feel hopeful that once we commit to getting a little dirty, we will see the answer is in the soil.