The past year’s climate reports - the National Climate Assessment, the IPCC 1.5® report, and the biodiversity report - paint a picture of a grim future if we don’t act now to fight climate change and conserve natural resources. Food production and food security are at risk from higher temperatures, drought, and degradation of food and water resources. If global temperatures rise above 1.5®C, then crop yields are expected to decline in the world’s warmer climates and water stress is expected to increase.
The risk is great, especially to the world’s most vulnerable people. But hope remains. The recently released Special Report on Land and Climate Change tells us that we can have a more hopeful future, because everyone-- from governments and large food companies to ordinary people-- has the power to make a difference in the fight against climate change by changing the way we grow our food and changing what we eat.
If we shift our ways of producing food back to a model of diversified farming centered around improving soil health, a more hopeful future for our climate is within our reach.
The Benefits of Farm Diversification
Better Soil Health
Soil health depends greatly on the diversity of plants and the microorganisms in the soil. Plant diversity and, sometimes, incorporation of animals into a farm system, result in a more biodiverse and healthier soil ecosystem. A healthier soil ecosystem means more soil carbon is sequestered, nutrients are cycled more efficiently, nutrient runoff into waterways and into the atmosphere is reduced, and the soil is more capable of retaining and holding onto water. All these improvements help farms be more resilient to the extreme impacts of climate change.
Just as biodiversity is key for soil health, diverse farming systems are better for biodiversity. The UN also released a stark report this year concluding that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, including some species of pollinators that keep our food system functioning. Diverse crop rotations can dramatically reduce use of herbicides and chemical inputs on farms that threaten biodiversity, and regenerative farming can improve pollinator habitat (Davis et al 2012).
Risk Management for Climate and the Economy
We’ve all heard the adage, “don’t put all your eggs into one basket.” US farmland used to be more diverse, but we have seen a tremendous shift from diversified crop rotations towards monocropping in the past 50 years. In Iowa, for example, corn and soybeans now occupy 82% of its cropland (Liebman and Schulte, 2015). This monoculture systems puts farms at greater risk, for environmental and economic reasons.
Diverse crop rotations and perennial crops are more resilient to outbreaks of pests and diseases and extreme weather. Farmers with more diverse systems and cover crops fare better in times of drought and flood, like the extreme floods that Midwestern farmers have battled this year.
Diverse farms also mean diversified incomes for farmers. Diverse mixes of crops help boost farm incomes when market prices are subject to fluctuation. Farm incomes have been suffering because of the US trade war with China. How much better shape would US farmers be in right now if diverse cropping systems were the norm, and instead of corn and soy, they were able to sell a wide variety of grains that could be marketed locally? Instead, our soybean farmers are forced to rely on government bailouts during the lowest soybean prices in a decade.
What Can You Do?
We can start by diversifying what we put on our plates. According to the report, eating a more balanced diet of coarse grains, pulses (beans and such), fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and animal-sourced food produced in sustainable, low-GHG emission systems can help with climate adaptation and mitigation and also benefit human health (from the Summary for Policy Makers, Section B6.2).
By diversifying what we eat and trying a wide variety of grain crops and vegetables, we can send a market signal that will translate to more diversity of crops on the land. So, don’t just keep grabbing for the same old bag of carrots and the same box of pasta – try new veggies and occasionally mix in some quinoa and bulgur wheat. It is fun to cook new things, and exploring different seasonal vegetables and grains gives all of us a tasty solution to an environmental problem. Better yet, buy from your local farmers market and ask them questions about the types of practices they use on their farm. Lastly, visit restaurants and grocery stores that stock items from regenerative farms.
Here in the US, we also must be aware that the agricultural industry has tremendous political power and that our current unsustainable agricultural system didn’t happen overnight. Years of farm policy have intentionally consolidated power toward the biggest agricultural conglomerates, and farmers may feel they don’t have much choice in what they produce and how. The report touches on a few policy solutions that we support here at NRDC:
- Improve access to markets. Market access is a key barrier to farm diversification in the US (Iles and Marsh 2012).
- Empower women farmers. In the US, women landowners and farmers play a crucial role but may feel left out of the equation or like they don’t have a voice.
- Diversity of food sources in public procurement programs.
- Agricultural diversification as part of comprehensive risk management. The US crop insurance system has sometimes been a barrier to farm diversification but it could be better structured to serve climate-friendly farming.
We will work to support policy solutions that have the potential to change our farm system for the better. Ordinary people have a lot of power to make a difference, so while we work on the policy changes, you can help by buying at your local farmers market and enjoying a wide variety of seasonal, locally-sourced foods from regenerative farms.