Agriculture has been the backbone of human civilization as something almost everyone is dependent on. 80% of humans rely on imported food, easily disrupted by the adverse effects of climate change and increasing natural disasters. However, the agricultural industry itself contributes to climate change, producing the second-height amount of human-caused carbon dioxide and pollution. As such, mitigating the climate crisis effect on important crops and adapting to more sustainable agricultural practices are essential to preventing a large crisis of access to food. As we have seen, the loss of access to Ukrainian and Russian crops in the global market has affected prices throughout the world. This is emblematic of how climate disasters would halt even the growth of such important crops let alone transport them on the global market.
Current efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the agricultural industry take a number of forms, including preventing environmental damage done to crops and increasing the efficiency of resources used in the process such as more collective management of water. Additionally, supporting farmers in taking measures to preserve cropland and precious water through subsidies could be a significant incentive for resilient crops. When it comes to preserving food sustainably, it is important that we increase efficiency for a growing population. Additionally, investing in internationally supported strategies to mitigate food shortage shocks from humanitarian disasters, can mean promoting more local farming through increasing technical and financial tools for said farmers, reducing food waste, and more efficient fertilizer use. A good example of why this is important is the impact that the Russian-Ukrainian war has had on increased prices of crops and fertilizer as both countries export large amounts of crops and fertilizer to the globe. Furthermore, decreasing the impact of monoculture and commodity crops like rice or wheat on the land such as high artificial fertilizer use or increased amounts of water can aid in increased sustainability and efficiency. As reported by the UN, if global temperatures increase more than 2 degrees celsius, more than 189 million people would experience hunger as a result of a global food shortage mostly impacting low-income people who can’t afford increased prices.
How to sustain growth
A similar threat of substandard harvests from yearly temperature changes and other climate change-related events exists for many staple crops that humans depend on, such as grains, fruits, and vegetables. For example, coffee beans are considered one of the most vulnerable crops to climate change due to their inability to grow well in the equator area of the Earth in countries like Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia that meet their temperature needs.
Breeding plant traits for specific genetic traits can create more resilient agricultural crops to better adjust to harsh weather conditions like drought or increased rainfall. However, the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is a divisive one, as a common myth is that GMO products are tainted and can adversely affect their health. However, Another reason for GMOs’ divisiveness is that corporations trademarked GMO seeds will mean they pursue litigious control over them. Despite these communal concerns, GMOs can be an important tool in preserving agricultural resilience and diversity in the face of climate change. Different country regulation of what crops can be modified has meant many places where genetically modified crops could be a success have not caught on. As such, increasing knowledge and dispelling myths about harmful or exploitative GMOs is important to sustaining agriculture in places affected by climate change.
For all that progress in developing stronger crops, if a specific agricultural environment becomes unsustainable for growth, this can mean the collapse of local food supplies and farmers. Some strategies to prevent the collapse of farmers, governments providing loans and subsidies to farmers can help them scale back their personal investments in making crops survive frostbite or flooding to focus on ensuring stable crop growth. Subsidies could incentivize farmers to improve their irrigation systems to transport water, which would allow staggered rainfall to seep into the ground instead of flooding. Additionally, the overall health of the soil can be improved through crop rotation, composting, and the use of natural fertilizers that do not leave harmful chemicals in the ground.
Subsidies are often overused by bigger farms based on commodity crops, for example, much of the aid provided in the U.S in the last few years was directed towards crops not grown for human consumption. Specific crops like hay and corn that are required to feed farm animals intended for human consumption take a lot more land than just crops grown directly for humans. Around 36 percent of food grown is used for animal feed, which is inefficient considering for example “it takes 75 times more energy to produce meat protein versus equivalent protein from corn.” By reducing the amount of land use dedicated to inefficient agricultural goods, more can be allocated to essential crops whilst also lowering emissions.
Most land used for farming could be more sustainable if we better incorporated natural resources already available to us back into our agricultural techniques. Dedication of fields is known as monocropping, this is bad for biodiversity as it eliminates many naturally found plants and animals that found the area home. For example, the symbiotic relationship between squash, pole bean, and corn plants — collectively known as the Three Sisters — creates benefits for each person harvesting them. The planting of crops with a symbiotic or mutual relationship is a farming technique used by many Indigenous communities in America, dating back to the Iroquois Confederation in the eastern forests of North America. As previously stated, this is one more mitigation effort against climate change-induced crop failure due is planting different crops together in the same field. This benefits the plants as they have nutritional resources and shade smaller plants with large ones. That would allow for less water to be required to keep plants from overheating. Protecting local farming practices increases the strength of communities in times of crisis as it means less dependence on aid.
Increasing Knowledge and Support for Farmers and Consumers
There is much that can be done to increase knowledge about care for plants as they grow in more intense weather conditions. With more knowledge of preparation against natural disasters and more sustainable methods, farmers can make decisions on what will be best to invest in for the next growing season. Preparation for hotter summers and increasing storms can help small-scale farmers who depend on successful crops every growing season. Most small farmers lack government subsidies compared to industrial farming, which receives close to 540 billion dollars yearly in subsidies, which revolves around profit without much consideration for their environmental impact and long-term sustainability.
In addition, improving water management to prevent both flooding and drought while providing water to essential fields. This is an area where new, low-cost technologies can provide important access like GPS information on water consumption and help track the efficiency of water management to parts of the world that need it the most. This is especially relevant considering that 80 percent of global cropland will worsen due to water scarcity, so it is important to consider how water is measured and distributed. For example, many areas in western North America have experienced intense drought for decades due to the overconsumption of main rivers based on the agreements created when the area had exceptionally wet seasons which means states are legally obligated to send water further down the river even in drought conditions. Better negotiation between farmers and other users like towns and dams producing hydropower for waterways can provide a better community understanding of what changes are needed to create resilient agriculture, including the plants we eat and use.
Critical infrastructure, support, and willingness to change will be of utmost importance as we are forced to adapt to warmer weather, changing the way we grow our food. The global food trade will likely increase in cost and small-scale farmers may have even more difficulty sustaining year-in-year-out growing practices. As such, governments need to mobilize support and incentivize farmers to use greener resources and techniques such as water management tracking. These investments and changes to agriculture policy can mean that costs to farmers and consumers will not increase as much because of climate change.
Continuous growth and change in agriculture
In brief, agriculture, the backbone of human civilization’s growth, has become a major impact on the environment while also being at serious risk of environmental damage due to climate change and other polluting influences. Most of the plants that are grown for consumption are intended for specific weather patterns and temperatures. This means many crops are vulnerable to changes in climate, and as such more investment in resilient crops is the path forward. As well as the allocation of land and resources towards more environment-friendly crops would make a difference in better preserving uncut land needed for farm animal feed. Issues such as these show how agriculture is still changing to meet human needs and what crops we prioritize and how we grow them will be key to sustaining a key industry.
Edited by Majeed Malhas