Originally published January 21, 2020 on Alberta Farmer Express
By Brenda Schoepp
Encouraging use of proven techniques and improving infrastructure are key to sustainable food production
It was my grandfather who said to me, “Once in your life you need a doctor, lawyer, policeman or preacher, but every day three times a day — you need a farmer.”
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations uses this in a poster promoting the importance of farming and agriculture globally.
In the past year I have completed several courses with the FAO and been on panels discussing climate change. It’s always challenging to respond to the audience’s curiosity as to what projects one has worked on to mitigate climate change. As a strong believer in local action, I often refer to our farming practices. Over time we went from implementing simple changes such as solar power fencing and water systems to full agronomic changes designed to build soil for generations. The evidence was clear when the land was stressed from climatic events because the pastures remained green and productive, the water flowing, the biodiversity alive and the soil cool even under the most hostile conditions.
This supported the concept that regenerative farming driven from an ecological foundation withstands changes in climate.
Change in climate has an impact on agriculture worldwide, and we need to pay attention to this as only seven per cent of the earth’s surface is arable and one per cent of the surface is fresh water. Each year we lose between 1.8 per cent and 2.4 per cent of arable land globally to urbanization and industrialization. In areas of conflict, productive land loss is 15 to 50 per cent.
This is further complicated by the challenge of land access and landownership. Globally much of the productive land is owned by church and state and powerful landowners are primary stakeholders in climate action.
What needs to happen is a reality check in terms of understanding the stakeholders and in identifying the problem. We have more than enough food. We do, however, have a broken infrastructure that does not provide access to this food. In 2014, the cost to fix this infrastructure was estimated at US$57 trillion.
This is why the second item on the UN’s list of sustainable development goals is zero hunger, which refers to access to food. To put continued pressure on farmers to ‘grow more food’ is misguided and, in many situations, can lead to destructive behaviour.
For example, in India, where landownership moratoriums limit agricultural land to seven acres per farm, the soil needs rest and rotation but the pressure is on to earn income and increase production. This drives some extreme farming practices. Only now are processes such as direct seeding being adopted.
There is little difference in a western Canadian farmer waiting for a rail car or grain delivery date and a woman on the side of the road in Peru waiting for a ride to take her vegetables to town. Or an Indian woman who produces superior milk in her dairy and has to let that can of warm milk sit on the road waiting for pickup. They are all victims of a broken infrastructure that does not identify product, reward excellence or assure delivery, price or payment.
Awareness is critical in understanding the scope of climate challenge. Globalization has failed, soil is lost and depleted, laws and policy are vague and in all cases, regardless of the initiative or the regulation, autonomy is assured. When you add to this the complications of depleting fresh water supplies, moratoriums on landownership, natural disasters and conflict you have a complex set of stakeholders.
It is important to remember that as Naomi Klein writes: “Politics hates a vacuum, if not filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.” The conversation needs to change globally, nationally and locally.
Canada’s arable land base is four per cent and we have a severe underappreciation of our role in climate leadership and in local and global food security. Canada could be the jewel in food production and processing globally because of its ability to produce traceable, identifiable, and nutritious food.
There is always a way.
I think of the innovation shown in Qatar where scrubbed sea water is piped inland to the desert and nutrients are added to grow legume-based crops. The legumes help build nitrogen, the trash is kept on the land, and animal feed becomes manure to be incorporated. Over time this will turn the sand into soil. That is climate action driven by knowledge, technology and the appreciation of developing an infrastructure that works.
Through it all it is critical to remember that one in three women globally work in agriculture. All future initiatives and voices must be inclusive of gender equality, family and community and deliver locally accessible technology and resources.
When it comes to the 17 UN sustainable development goals they cannot be separated. You cannot have one without the other and you cannot have any without food.
There cannot be peace, prosperity, security, equality, ecology or an economy without food.
Food systems need dynamic collaborators and resilient and regenerative structures. We must stop generating climate fear and shift into the possible. Then and only then will we feed our world ‘three times a day.’