Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Linking climate change, agriculture and lunch

Sidenote: I just searched my email archives for "COP14 YOUTH" and got 96 hits. I support the cause--not the clutter.

As an aspiring agricultural/environmental economist, I bypassed the popular GreenPeace forum and took the path less traveled today by attending a side event titled, "Mitigation Potential in Agriculture" organized by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). A few of the general issues discussed involved the fact that agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases cannot be further overlooked as well as land use policies concerning deforestation, forest and land degradation and carbon sequestration. A main tenant of the panel discussion was that climate change is directly linked to agricultural production and that agricultural production is directly linked to climate change. It was urged that neither faction be discussed without consideration of the other. At 12% of total GHG emissions each year, agriculture holds an important role at this conference and in the future of climate change policy.

In my academic environmental pursuits, I've acquired a prying curiosity for the food industry. As the most basic means of survival, I think we Americans take the availability of food for granted. Furthermore, I think most Americans surveyed would rank the transportation industry as a larger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions than agriculture in their motherland, and, unfortunately, they'd be wrong. To put it in perspective, economic literature estimates that the GHG emissions of producing 1kg of beef in the US are equivalent to driving approximately 160 miles in a midsize American car. In essence, a steak dinner for a family of four affects the environment the same way a Ford Taurus does on a trip from Buffalo to Syracuse.

With that being said, it was nice to see liaisons from the USDA and World Bank attending and questioning the presentation by FAO representatives and an UN secretariat. The presentations were largely focused on quantifying the mitigation potentials in agriculture as well as looking at policy options that could initiate a more sustainable food industry with respect to climate change. A few of the main sources of potential mitigation include improving crop land management, pastoral grazing land management, and organic soil restoration. The regions best suited to make significant improvements in particular are Southeast Asia and South America. Options for encouraging sustainable development in agiculture include regulatory practices to ensure environmental compliance, taxing GHG emissions on farms, and providing financial support for "climate-friendly" agriculture. The presenters emphasized that the "co-benefits" of a greening of the agricultural industry could include alleviating poverty, sustaining development, maintaining biodiversity, creating more food and energy security and, most importantly for this conference, improved overall environmental quality.

Another interesting point of the discussion described the carbon sequestration of well-managed pasture. Certain types of agricultural lands could have the same sequestering abilities as a forest of the equivalent size, as well as providing a food resource--key word: "well-managed". This provides the opportunity for agriculture to transfrom from a large contributor of GHGs to an instrument of mitigation. Currently, only 3% of clean development mechanisms are devoted towards agriculture in some way (mainly animal waste management), so it is imperative that agriculture continues to be an industry of focus in these climate negotiations.

So, what does this mean to YOU? Well, in an economic sense, the food industry is entirely consumer driven. Farmers farm so that we can eat. Unfortunately, what you and I and the other 6.6 billion people on the planet are eating isn't helping our environment. With that said, we hold the power to alter the structure of the agricultural industry and improve the environmental impact of food production. I support the idea to shift protein intake onto insects rather than mammals and birds. Kidding--kind of. Is eating a cow that much different than eating a beetle? Bugs are way more energy efficient (biologically speaking) plus they're somewhat abundant (insects outweigh humans in biomass by a multiple of 10, I believe [citation needed]). Okay, maybe not insects, but we definitely need to be a little more conscious of the carbon footprint of our daily meals. Ultimately, I am advocating the cutting and selling of agro-environmental awareness like crack in the urban eighties. Think before you eat. Go easy on the meat. Soy products are nice treats.

Assigned Reading: The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan

Over and out,
Casey Wichman

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