By Raveen Veerasenan Jeyakumar
To tackle climate change, the world must move in stages from industrial agriculture to organic farming.
Industrial agriculture is one of the major causes of climate change, contributing 44% to 57% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
This is due to deforestation, dependence on chemical fertilisers, and intensive livestock farming.
Vast tracts of forest have to be razed to make way for monoculture plantations that produce cash crops.
Industrial farming relies heavily on chemical fertilisers. When nitrogen in synthetic fertilisers is exposed to soil, microbial reactions generate nitrous dioxide, which is 300 times more potent than C02 in warming the atmosphere.
Apart from that, tractors and irrigation machinery need fuel to operate. The long-distance haulage of food products guzzles even more fuel.
Livestock farming on an industrial scale is highly intense. The feeding of livestock with protein-rich foods instead of grass produces enormous amounts of manure, which releases greenhouse gases upon decomposition.
In fact, about half of atmospheric pollution is linked to planet-warming CO2, nitrogen oxide and methane from the industrial, globalised food system.
This industrial food system accounts for 25% to 40% of the current excess CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Large-scale mechanised farms in the global North use roughly 2.5 times the amount of energy to produce a tonne of cereals compared to small farms in the global South, and over three times the energy per hectare.
We can tackle climate change by moving from industrial to organic farming.
Due to the fact that fossil fuel-based fertilisers and most synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic farming, this significantly lowers its carbon footprint.
Data from multiple studies comparing thousands of farms throughout the US has shown that organic farming results in higher stable soil organic carbon and lower nitrous oxide emissions when compared to conventional farming.
Studies show that the elimination of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers alone could lower direct global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by about 20%.
A forty-year study conducted by Rodale Institute in the US showed that organic farms use 45% less energy compared to conventional farms while maintaining or even exceeding yields after a five-year transition period.
One recent comparison in the Philippines found organic farming to be 63% more energy efficient than conventional farming, while producing equal yields.
Small farmers can farm productively without the use of chemicals by diversifying cropping systems, integrating crop and livestock, and incorporating trees and wild vegetation.
The more biodiversity and biomass there is, the greater the ability of the plants to extract atmospheric carbon and nitrogen and to reduce both emissions and the stocks of pollutants in the air.
With organic farming, food production is reoriented towards local markets and fresh foods. This eliminates much of the industrial food system’s greenhouse gas emissions arising from the global trade in food.
To counter any lower productivity in organic farming, farmers could use biofertilisers or combine biofertilisers with organic manure.
Biofertilisers are cost-effective and eco-friendly, and their prolonged use boosts soil fertility. Their use can increase crop yields by 10-40%, as they enhance the soil with proteins, vital amino acids, vitamins and nitrogen fixation.
Biofertilisers may even raise the food production rate and make farm products safer for consumers.
So, to tackle climate change effectively, we must move from the industrial food system to organic farming. Local communities should develop organic farming with government help and subsidies to reduce their burden during the transition.
The mega-plantations of industrial commodity crops – notorious emitters of greenhouse gases – should be scaled down. Climate policies must address not just greenhouse gas emissions, but also the harmful practices of the industrial agriculture system.
But because most of the world relies heavily on industrial farming, it would be prudent to move to organic farming only in stages. This way, we can analyse the impact of the measures at each stage to prevent a food and socioeconomic crisis during the transition period.
The transition period should target nations with a higher dependence on industrial farming in order to maximise short-term results in the fight against climate change.
(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)
Raveen Veerasenan Jeyakumar is a 29-year-old based in Ipoh with an interest in social and environmental issues. He has taken part in various social work activities under Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).