Countering climate change

GUELPH, Ont. — Farmers need to play a central role if the world is to address climate change, says a senior lecturer in geography from University College Cork in Ireland.

Colin Sage, who has also written Environment and Food, which connects food production to environmental issues, recommended placing greater emphasis on soil biology to deliver crop nutrients, sequester carbon and better manage fresh water resources.

“We are in a state of unsustainability right now and we already know what’s needed to move to a state of real sustainability,” Sage said in an interview following his presentation to the Ontario Institute of Agrologists conference.

“Climate change is the biggest issue that exists, and it’s the biggest challenge to agriculture.”

Sage sees advances in precision agriculture as part of the solution because correct placement and timing of fertilizer applications will reduce the amount of the crop input that will be needed.

Less welcome may be Sage’s views on meat production.

He said animals must be a part of agriculture, but the way they are raised needs to change, especially when it comes to ruminants.

Sage said grass-based production systems make more sense because they require less fertilizer and allow farmers to broaden their rotation, better recycle nutrients and sequester carbon.

At the same time, people need to eat less meat by consuming plants directly to meet a greater percent of human nutritional requirements, he said.

“Veganism is really growing across Europe, and vegans have a powerful voice.”

He said changes will not come without major societal and agricultural adjustment and the political will, driven by an increasingly concerned population, to implement them.

Agriculture has enormous potential to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and by adopting less energy-intensive farming systems, he added, but it’s also a heavy contributor to the problem.

Sage said livestock contributes 18 percent of global emissions and accounts for 40 percent of agricultural gross domestic product.

“The problem with the livestock sector is that it’s consuming 43 percent of the crops people could be eating,” he said.

He also targeted the heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer on row crops and said a greater emphasis on integrated livestock production could reduce its use.

Sage said almost all the world’s credible scientists see man-made climate change as a real phenomenon. It has been linked to the increasing number of extreme weather events and volatile agricultural commodity prices.

Sage cited a World Bank report that said “there will be fights over food and water everywhere” if the average global temperature increases by 4 C.

At the United Nations COP21 Climate Change Conference in Paris last year, 195 nations agreed to take the necessary steps to keep the temperature rise to below 2 C.

Sage said this is an “inspirational goal” that will require real, long-term action to be met.

“If we’re going to keep within that two degree envelope, which is very unlikely, we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 85 to 90 percent by 2030.”

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