Ecological Agriculture as the Key to Saving the Planet

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

The two biggest challenges the world faces today are climate change and global hunger. These challenges are bound to escalate over the next decade, and if we’re to avoid unimaginable calamity they must be met headon. Though the two may appear distinct, in reality they’re joined at the hip. Thus if we’re to triumph over one we must also tackle the other.

One of the keys to a double solution lies in transforming the global food system. According to recent studies, the corporate-dominated food system is responsible for 44%– 57% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—a quantity larger than that of all the world’s vehicle traffic. A hotter climate in turn portends ill for our food supply. The heat waves, droughts, and monster floods unleashed by a warmer planet reduce crop yields, blocking efforts to feed a world population due to add 2 billion hungry mouths by 2050.

While the tie between agriculture and climate confronts us with a dilemma, agriculture experts have suggested that both problems can be ameliorated at one stroke by changing the dominant system of food production. What they propose is a pivot away from the focus on large-scale monocrop cultivation toward small-scale farming using agro-ecological techniques.

A short article recently published in the online journal GRAIN, authored jointly by GRAIN and the peasant movement La Via Campesina, argues the case for the advantages of traditional small-scale farming. The article dissects the industrial food system into six segments, describing the negative impact each has on our climate. It then proposes five steps for simultaneously cooling the planet and feeding its people. These proposals closely mesh with the types of projects promoted by Buddhist Global Relief.

The onslaught against the climate begins with deforestation, which razes the huge forest tracts that serve as major “carbon sinks,” sucking up vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it in tree trunks, foliage, and the soil. The burning of felled trees and undergrowth aggravates the situation by discharging large quantities of CO2 back into the air. It’s estimated that deforestation accounts for 15–18% of GHG emissions.

Farming itself is directly responsible for 11-15% of emissions, most resulting from chemical imputs such as fertilizers and pesticides and from the use of oil to run farm machinery. The toxic chemicals, moreover, seep into the plants and soil and from the food into our bodies, to the detriment of our health.

The transportation of food, carried by ships and trucks back and forth across oceans and continents, accounts for 25% of global GHG emissions linked to transport and 5-6% of all carbon emissions.

Processing, the next step in the chain, transforms raw foods into commodities for sale in supermarkets and food shops. This requires an enormous input of energy, as does the packaging and canning of foods. Together, processing and packaging account for 8-10% of total GHG emissions.

To preserve the food for sale, it must be refrigerated, another energy-intensive process, which together with the retailing of foods adds 2–4% of carbon emissions.

Finally, the industrial food system discards as waste up to half the food it produces. Much spoilage occurs in storage or during the long journey from farm to plate, while in the developed world mountains of food are thrown out by supermarkets, restaurants, and homes. Food waste adds another 3.5–4.5% to GHG emissions.

The article proposes five steps “to cool the planet and feed its people,” all revolving around small-scale ecologically sustainable agriculture.

  1. Taking care of the soil. Where industrial agriculture destroys masses of the organic matter on arable lands, the traditional practices of small farmers have the opposite effect, capturing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil. Hence, if the right measures are adopted, this “would offset between 24-30% of all current global greenhouse gas emissions.”
  2. No use of chemicals. Small farmers know how to preserve the fertility of the soil without the chemical fertilizers that have fostered an unholy alliance between agricultural firms and chemical corporations. Such traditional techniques as diversified cropping, integration of crop and animal production, and planting of trees and wild vegetation on cropland help to improve soil fertility and and prevent soil erosion.
  3. Cut the transport, focus on fresh food. The article maintains that reorienting food production to local markets and fresh foods can dramatically cut carbon emissions. It neglects to mention, however, that livestock cultivation is responsible for some 18% of global carbon emissions (see “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” Executive Summary, p. xxi). Thus a transition from meat-based diets to plant-based diets would bring sharp drops in carbon emissions while making available for human consumption the vast amounts of grains and beans now used to feed animals. Since the animals are raised to provide meat for affluent people in the developed world, such a shift would also bring greater equity into the global food system.
  4. Give the land back to the farmers. Over the past half-century, 140 million hectares have been taken over by big estates to grow crops such as soybeans, oil palm, rapeseed, and sugar cane, all notorious emitters of greenhouse gases. Small farmers produce food more efficiently and in ways better suited to a finite planet. Thus, the article says, “a worldwide redistribution of lands to small farmers, combined with policies to help them rebuild soil fertility and policies to support local markets, can reduce GHG emissions by half within a few decades.”
  5. Forget false solutions, focus on what works. The false solutions include GMO crops, large geo-eningeering projects, and policies like carbon markets that allow the worst emitters to avoid cuts. Though these approaches are favored by big agro, biotech, and chemical firms, which all profit from them, the article contends that they do not work. The real solution, it holds, is “a shift from a globalized, industrial food system governed by corporations to local food systems in the hands of small farmers.” This suggestion is supported by independent studies. For instance, a study of 286 sustainable agriculture projects in 57 countries found an average yield increase of 79% (Oxfam, Growing a Better Future, p. 53).

As global civilization pushes back against the mounting threat of climate chaos, governments and innovators will be promoting clean technologies, green commodities, more fuel-efficient cars, and retrofitting of buildings. While these are essential parts of any solution, policymakers shouldn’t overlook the role of agriculture. Shifting support from the industrial model of food production to agro-ecological farming will not only reduce carbon emissions but regenerate soils, protect rivers and lakes from pollution by toxic chemicals and animal waste, and reaffirm the dignity of small-scale farmers. Such a shift will further help lift traditional farmers from poverty, thus enhancing their economic security and promoting social justice. It will also redefine our relationship to the natural world from one characterized by domination and exploitation toward one marked by deep care, reverence, and collaboration.

It is for such reasons that BGR sponsors projects that favor small-scale farmers and ecologically sustainable agriculture. We see these as critical both to our efforts to combat global hunger and to counter climate change, which poses such a grave danger to the world’s food supply. By promoting sustainable methods to tackle poverty and hunger, in our own small way we are helping to preserve a planet that will remain hospital to human flourishing.

One response to “Ecological Agriculture as the Key to Saving the Planet

  1. Sir,
    Your article reminded of back in the mid-eighties when looking for something interesting to read in a university library in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Came across a book by Willie Brandt, who until that point I had never heard of, but learned he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in the book wrote that 40,000 children die every day from curable diseases or starvation. It was an astonishing, unforgettable moment because that statistic was completely unknown by me, and it seemed very wrong that it was not being reported by every news organization on Earth. Now, this personal experience occurred some thirty years ago, and, God bless you for writing a sincere and accurate article, but frankly hearing the United Nations speaking about plans for ending poverty by the year 2030 has resulted in a personal state of righteous indignation and reaching the limit of patience.
    Is it possible for leaders of the world’s spiritual traditions to join in condemning the slow pace of resolving what are serious, solvable problems? From poverty to war and killing, the limits of patience regarding “solutions” from the world’s so-called “leaders”, where it has become the norm to essentially “kick the can down the road”, have been exhausted.
    One senses that the time has come for complete rejection of brilliant descriptions of problems without actions to resolve them. It seems humanity is on a treadmill where people accurately articulate what is wrong on a variety of issues, but the focus on solutions is totally absent. In other words, it’s time to proceed from description and identification of the problems to actually solving them. This includes adequate food for all people, peace for all people, shelter for all people, and taking it to a long, long-overdue higher level.