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Taking Climate Change Seriously

While there is no such thing as an “average” farmer, there seems to be a certain proportion of the species with a somewhat selective attitude toward science-based research.

When it comes to crop chemicals or genetically modified organisms, they are quite prepared to accept the vast majority of scientific opinion that they are perfectly safe, and quick to dismiss the tiny minority who claim otherwise.

But when it comes to the suggestion that there is any relationship between burning fossil fuels and climate change, the same farmers pooh-pooh the vast majority of scientific opinion, and happily attend dinner meetings where some fringe type with the gift of the gab dismisses human-induced climate change as some figment of environmentalists’ imaginations.

Stranger still is that when it comes to climate change, no one has more at stake than farmers. A predictable climate is essential to their livelihood. Given the weather that they’ve seen in Western Canada over the past few years, you might think that they’d start to wonder if there just might be something to this climate change thing. Add that to other evidence such as extreme storms and flooding elsewhere and the decline of the polar ice cap, surely it must start to look pretty convincing.

The hundreds of thousands of Somali and Ethiopian farmers now in refugee camps – or at those and their families who survived walking hundreds of miles to reach them – would certainly give the theory of human-induced climate change at least the benefit of the doubt. It’s unacceptable for more fortunate farmers in the Western World to do otherwise.

For those in refugee camps, the immediate need is get food to them as quickly as possible. Those who provide that food, be they governments, organizations or farmers, deserve credit for providing and delivering it, but the danger is becoming self-satisfied about our generosity. That takes us back to that attitude of the climate change skeptics, who woo farmers in North America with the compliments about how they are “feeding a hungry world” and they should just ignore any critics who suggest that what they are doing is not environmentally sustainable.

It’s certainly desirable for farmers to produce extra food for the majority of the world’s population who don’t farm. But farmers in the West shouldn’t be feeding their counterparts who have been forced off the land elsewhere. They should be helping them stay on the land so that they can feed their families and their neighbours. That help includes reducing greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

In a move clearly intended to make that point and to bring this issue into the mainstream of agricultural policy discussion, earlier this month the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) issued the statement reprinted on the opposite page. This is a 5,000-member group of scientists and others with an intimate knowledge of the relationship between soil, climate and food production. The statement is carefully measured, but clear:

“Greenhouse gases contributed by agriculture are an important factor in climate change. Extreme weather events are creating environmental problems, accelerating the rate of erosion, and threatening agricultural production.”

The statement goes on to outline measures needed to store carbon and prevent further erosion of the soil resource. It might be tempting to dismiss these recommendations as directed to the less developed regions where food security is a problem, but there is no such reference. In fact it says that the principles of conservation agriculture are essential to “each country’s health, social stability, and security.”

The statement goes on to say that “There is a direct relationship between soil and water conservation and agricultural productivity.” On one hand you might say that this is blindingly obvious.

Unfortunately, it’s not. Recent discussion of world food security has often been hijacked by those on either side of a single issue – genetics. On one side are proponents of genetic modification and other technologies to improve crop yields. On the other are those opposing them for various reasons. This has diverted attention from the far more important issue, which is that the highest-yielding variety can’t perform if it doesn’t have fertile soil and enough moisture.

Having literally beaten back the desert during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, along with the widespread adoption of minimum tillage in the last two decades, it’s tempting to think the soil conservation battle has been won in North America. The SWCS suggests otherwise, pointing out that climate change means new and different challenges.

At least in some agricultural circles, it’s been fashionable to dismiss the notion of human-induced climate change. Some of the best minds in soil and agricultural science are telling us that not only is it real, but it’s time to do something about it. [email protected]

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