How To Feed the World After Climate Change

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Sept. 2 2014 5:34 PM

How To Feed the World After Climate Change

Genetically modified seeds aren’t enough. We have to change the entire agricultural system.

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More and more agricultural experts are saying we need a shift to ecological agriculture, sometimes known as agro-ecology. Ecological agriculture eschews applying chemical fertilizers to soil; rather, it favors compost and manure, which increase the soil’s fertility and ability to retain water—key advantages against hot, dry weather. And rather than monocultures, agro-ecology fosters a diverse agricultural landscape where nature’s processes are utilized not only to grow food but to maintain the health of the soil, water, and biodiversity that make agriculture possible in the first place.

In western Africa, for example, thousands of the poorest farmers on earth are capturing scarce rainfall and rejuvenating soil fertility by growing trees amid their fields of millet and sorghum. Despite enduring some of the hottest, driest weather on earth, these farmers have returned greenery to 12.5 million acres of land—enough to see from outer space, courtesy of satellite imagery from the U.S. Geological Survey. More important, underground water tables have been replenished, and crop yields have doubled and tripled.

Mixing forests and farmland is also being explored in China, where Lin Erda, a senior government scientist, has joined with Greenpeace to endorse ecological agriculture as the best way to cope with climate change. Raising ducks and fish in rice paddies, for example, reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and the need for chemical fertilizers; the fish decrease the methane that the paddies would otherwise emit, while the ducks control pests.

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But how does ecological agriculture compare against industrial agriculture’s greatest strength—its ability to produce prodigious amounts of food? That’s a vital question on a planet where, even today, one in seven people goes hungry.

In Africa, extensive field studies show ecological agriculture matching the yields of conventional agriculture, while also boosting water supply and soil fertility. But Africa is a special case. Bypassed by the Green Revolution of the 1970s, it never got used to the inflated yields that industrial agriculture made possib-le.

In the United States and Europe, switching from industrial to ecological agriculture has invariably caused an initial decline in yields. However, after a brief transition period of three to five years, ecological agriculture’s yields rebound to equal those of industrial agriculture, according to a 30-year study conducted by the Rodale Institute.

And ecological agriculture’s advantages promise to be even greater under climate change.  In drought years, Rodale found, its yields were 31 percent higher than conventional yields. Ecological agriculture also built rather than depleted soil fertility while recharging groundwater supplies. Finally, it produced 40 percent fewer greenhouse gases than industrial agriculture.

My daughter was born into what I call Generation Hot—the 2 billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lifetimes coping with the hottest, most volatile climate human civilization has ever known. Agriculture, it turns out, is one of the few tricks humanity still has up its sleeve to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable of climate change. Let’s not squander it.

Mark Hertsgaard has written about climate change for outlets  including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Newsweek,and The Nation. A fellow of the New America Foundation, he has authored six books, including HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.