Friday August 26, 2022

Agriculture must go back on eco-friendly roots

Agriculture must go back on eco-friendly roots

An organic farm in California.

Anthony Pahnke, Tribune News Service

When I have trouble growing something, I ask my grandma. Whether it’s how to remove mildew on squash plants or stop beetles from attacking my cucumber seedlings, she knows what to do.

More importantly, she knows how to farm without chemicals. My grandma is a walking encyclopedia of traditional farming practices, ways of growing food that farmers used before turning to pesticides to kill weeds and giant tractors to plow up fields. She taught me, for example, how to handle and care for Holstein and Jersey cattle, on our dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin.

This knowledge is valuable, not just for me, but for providing a more sustainable template for the agriculture industry. Lessons from the past can help small-scale farmers address climate change by keeping carbon in the soil and cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Agriculture, from the application of synthetic fertilisers to livestock production, was responsible for 11% of US GHG emissions in 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers estimate that around one third of global GHG emissions come from the food system overall, including how land is prepared for farming, as well as how food is processed and transported.

We know that this has devastating impacts: The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as seen in California’s wildfires and the floods in Kentucky, is caused by GHG emissions we put into the atmosphere from using fossil fuels.

This is what makes the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) so promising, especially because of the $19.5 billion it puts toward conservation practices. The task now is to assure that the IRA’s resources reach those who will substantially address our climate crisis instead of making it worse.

Some troubling signs have already emerged. For instance, while “distressed farmers” are targeted in the legislation, those that qualify only include people who have fallen behind on paying off loans from the US Department of Agriculture or who have deferred their loan payments during the pandemic. Currently, that figure is at just over 24,500 farm families.

Additionally, the IRA does not address the history of racism in US agricultural policy, which the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan had attempted by providing resources to relieve the debt obligations of farmers of color. This connects to another problem: whether the resources dedicated to conservation in the IRA will contribute to farm consolidation. Specifically, if the resources will finance the expansion of already large-scale operations.

Of particular concern is the approximately $8.5 billion dedicated for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has noted, over 20% of EQIP financing in 2019 and 2020 went to waste management projects for large-scale, confined animal feeding operations, as well as irrigation practices that overuse water.

This includes installing manure digesters on factory dairy and swine operations, which generate energy in the form of biogas. Considering biogas production as a source of renewable energy and an appropriate way to address climate change subsidises the expansion of already large-scale operations.

Meanwhile, financing water overconsumption aggravates droughts and does not incentivise large-scale operations to improve their use of this increasingly scarce resource. Instead, we need to reorient how we grow our food.

Encouraging agroecology is one way. According to the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization, these practices promote genetic and species diversity, sharing knowledge among producers, and transparent and accountable food system governance. Some universities and advocacy groups work with farmers on turning such ideas into reality.

My grandma does not call what she does agroecology, but she could. Thankfully, she has a good memory and is willing to share. To confront climate change, we should turn to her knowledge, and what others like her know — not to initiatives that benefit factory farming more than the Earth.

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