The Bitter Taste of Climate Change

Is industrial agriculture really to blame for around half of all greenhouse gas emissions?

A 2013 UNCTAD report suggests that if the whole chain is included (from land-use and deforestation to processing, packaging, transport and sale of agricultural products) we’re looking at the sector being to blame for between 47 to 53 per cent of emissions.

Back in the 60s industrial agriculture was credited with saving a billion lives. Back then, in the post-war period, it was called the Green Revolution and its figurehead, Norman Borlaug, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work increasing yields and modernising farming methods.

Notwithstanding this success, there have been many critics of this form of agriculture. As far back as 1976 the Susan George book “How The Other Half Dies” caused a stir by repudiating the conclusions of the UN World Food Conference held two years earlier.

Hans Rudolf Herren is a Swiss development specialist and winner of the 1995 World Food Prize for avoided a major food crisis in Africa. In the early 90s an insect accidentally introduced to Africa was ravaging a staple crop, cassava. Herren introduced its natural predator, a type of wasp, and thus solved the problem without resorting to pesticides or crop modification. He is passionately opposed to the “Green Revolution” agricultural model and argues for a sustainable approach as the only way to avoid, or at least mitigate, catastrophe.

I interviewed Herren when he spoke at the 2015 TedX conference in Martigny, Switzerland. He pointed to the Rio +20 conference in 2012, which stated that transformation in the sector was necessary, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which call for sustainable agriculture. As far as he is concerned, talking about scientific solutions is an attempt to deal with the symptoms rather than the cause of the problem. He doesn’t think GMOs can help, because their use has led to the use of toxic herbicides.

Can industry be a partner in attaining the Sustainability Goals? Herren doesn’t think so. For him, big business is just scratching the surface with proposals for Climate Smart Agriculture, and that purely a profit motive is pushing the drive to direct attention towards GMOs and fertilisers investment. He wants industry to be removed from discussions until they agree to a bottom-up approach.

Farming has not always been top of the agenda when it comes to climate change, but proponents of sustainable agriculture, such as Herren will be making their voices heard at the COP21 Climate Change Conference in the hope of raising increased awareness of the issue.

However, in his view the 2° target is a fantasy, a minimum 4° rise being the best we can hope for. And so the big question will be if, and how, we can adapt.

You can hear the interview here. As ever, all comments are welcome.