Climate change is real and is one of the issues that will force farmers to change their practices, according to the head of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.
Many people are in denial about climate change, Craig Pearson told attendees at the University of Manitoba annual Bendelow Lecture in an address entitled “Changing Agriculture to Save the World.”
Even in his native Australia, which has experienced both severe drought and extreme flooding in recent years, government has allocated 130 per cent of normal river flow in one of the most affected regions, the Murray-Darling Basin.
“There is a huge gap between society’s expectations and the new reality,” said Pearson, a former dean of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph.
“I would suggest that the next generation in agriculture has to address that gap.”
But much has been learned in recent decades, and fortunately those lessons are being taken to heart in the developing world, Pearson said.
“I’m actually relatively optimistic that in developing countries, as they very quickly move to urbanization, there will be direct and indirect price pressures to create a less leaky farming system,” he said. “Whereas we are in a very affluent situation, we have not had to worry about leakage and wastage.”
However, a massive overconsumption of goods, energy, fertilizer, water and soil in agriculture will eventually have to be addressed, he said. Better government policies, legume-based cropping systems, greenbelt initiatives, agro-ecological zones, savanna cropping and urban agriculture will be parts of the solution, he said.
But if you’re looking for a silver bullet, you’re out of luck.
“This is evolution, not revolution,” said Pearson. “None of us have the answers, but collectively we need to get there.”
A change in perspective is critical, said the University of Melbourne professor, and that means moving beyond a model focused only on production and productivity, and changing the one-way connection between farming and urban centres.
“Yes, cities are part of the problem, but cities are also part of the solution,” he said, noting more than 50 per cent of the world’s population currently live in cities and that number will increase dramatically in the coming decades.
Pearson said those cities need to start giving something back to agriculture — phosphorus. Global supplies of this essential nutrient are being depleted and recycling it would encourage people to view the urban-rural relationship as a cycle and not a one-way “food chain,” he said.
Pearson said he doesn’t have the answers to technical issues around returning phosphorus to farms, but is confident they can be overcome.
“For those who say it is all too difficult and costly, I would remind you that for 10 years Toronto took its garbage to a landfill site in Michigan,” he said.
Public education is also part of making agriculture more sustainable, and reducing food waste.
“If the public is aware that the apple with the blotch on it tastes the same as the apple without the blotch on it — and will eat both — then we have an immediate change in pricing and a reduction in waste,” said Pearson.
The global economy is expected to increase fourfold in the coming years, which translates into higher rates of consumption — something that Pearson said concerns him.
“Clearly the world needs saving… and agriculture has a leadership role to play,” he said. “I believe that society transformation to a new form of agriculture is both necessary and possible.”