Another year, another United Nations conference on climate change.
It seems that nations gather about every year to try to develop a consensus, or at least a starting point, to address the major problems of the world.
Earth Summit 2012, scheduled for June 20-22, plans to address a lot more than climate change, but make no mistake. Climate change will be a key issue that weaves its way throughout the agenda as powerbrokers from around the world gather in Rio de Janeiro.
Conferences like these are a good idea in principle. They provide a chance for nations to come together in an attempt to solve the world’s biggest problems.
In the past, they have had varying degrees of success. The UN Climate Summit in Denmark in 2009 saw goals tossed out and a final result with no firm commitment for action.
Let’s hope the Rio edition turns out better.
Farmers should keep a close watch on the proceedings because events like these have a history of placing a disproportionate share of the blame for the Earth’s problems on agriculture. Whether the issue is climate change, the environment, water, the global economy, the population explosion, or as the Rio conference has set out as its overarching theme, sustainable development, agriculture has been cited as a cause and a target for environmental reforms.
That’s probably because agriculture is intertwined closely with the land and environment. As well, as a foundation industry, it is a provider of raw goods and services upon which so many other aspects of the global economy depend.
We’ve heard the criticisms before: farmers are huge fuel consumers, driving gas-guzzling pick-up trucks, huge tractors and massive combines; many have cattle that burp methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and it takes too much water to produce cattle commercially so we should stick to growing grain and vegetables.
However, North American farmers know that fuel use is not a luxury in rural communities. A reasonably powered pickup is vital to the job description: there is no transit system to take them to work and no electrical powered tractor for them to use once they get there. Cattle cannot be trained not to burp after they eat grass.
Farmers have proven themselves up to the task when facing similar challenges in the past.
As a whole, they have not been shy through the years about adopting innovative new methods, such as no-till and equipment breakthroughs that enable them to more efficiently get the crop in and out of the ground.
That, combined with seed innovations and staying apprised of the latest agronomic practices, have enabled farmers to coax much higher yields from the same number of acres.
Beef and dairy production has also grown more efficient. Frank Mitloehner, a professor in the animal science department at the University of California, Davis, points out that high-tech farming has advantages.
For example, there are 60 million fewer dairy cattle today in the United States than during the Second World War.
In beef, 90 million cattle today produce the same amount of meat as 140 million head did in 1970, all due to efficiency gains. That translates into less methane and nitrous oxide gases being released.
It’s clear that farmers have done their share. We hope the communiqués out of Earth Summit 2012 give credit where credit is due.
Yes, farming does have an environmental impact, as all businesses do. But farming is crucial to the survival of the planet, perhaps more than any other. We would be wise to find funding, research and strong leadership that keeps agriculture ahead of the curve in innovation and efficiencies rather than burden it with unfair restrictions and unjust accusations.