Agriculture, positioned as it is at the intersection of food and climate, presents a unique fulcrum. Pushed in the direction of industrial agriculture, it
contributes egregiously to our climate problem: As activist Bill McKibben has noted, industrial
agriculture -- predominant in the U.S. -- "essentially insures that your food is marinated in crude oil before you eat it." This is because at every step, from
the production of fertilizers and pesticides to the harvesting, processing, packaging, and transporting of materials, the industrial food system depends on
climate-changing fossil fuels. Indeed, in a new report on climate change and food systems, the agriculture
research organization CGIAR concluded that our global food system is responsible for nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
But we can tip the scale in the other direction toward sustainable agriculture, working in concert with natural systems instead of depleting them. This
side of the scale presents an elegant, under-recognized opportunity to stabilize the climate. Not only do agro-ecological, organic and other sustainable
farming methods emit significantly less greenhouse gas (GHG) overall, they can also sequester or store excess carbon. Given our long list of existing
environmental worries -- erosion, polluted watersheds, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico -- strengthening our top soil is a lot smarter than loading it up with
nitrogen and washing it down the Mississippi.
Sustainable agriculture not only recaptures GHG, it eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers like manufactured nitrogen which emits nitrous oxide.
According to the EPA, agriculture is directly responsible for 68% of U.S. nitrous oxide emissions (a potent GHG; each molecule has 310 times the
atmospheric warming potential of one molecule of carbon dioxide). By favoring biodiversity, productivity, resource efficiency and resilience -- sustainable
agriculture also offers tangible benefits like cleaner water, preserved wildlife habitat, and reduced exposure to pesticides.
Despite these obvious advantages, sustainable systems are often dismissed as backward or as some romanticized fantasy, particularly by multi-national
chemical companies with a vested interest in maintaining the industrial system. In reality these low-impact methods of farming are rooted in the realities
of local climate and culture and provide promising models of resilience. Consider, for instance, Angelic Organics, a biodynamic farm
in north central Illinois: it grows more than 55 different crops on 100 acres while using cover crops that sequester atmospheric carbon in the soil,
harvest nitrogen from the air, protect the soil from erosion, and provide habitats for beneficial insects. Examples of such productivity combined with
critical ecosystem services can be found all over the country and on every continent. Most importantly, a 2009 scientific report known as the
International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that sustainable agriculture is, in fact, more resilient in the face of climate change than industrial mono-cropping -- the mile after mile
of corn and soy that now dominates our farming states.