Agriculture, food, and climate change

Bruno Parmentier, mining engineer, economist, former director- former Director-General of ESA (Graduate School of Agricultural Studies of Angers)

If you want to invest in reducing the impact of global warming on agriculture and food, there are three types of measures that need to be taken, as this sector is triply concerned, simultaneously acting as:

  • Victim: this is one of the human activities that will suffer the most from global warming effects, which will severely compromise its development in many parts of the world. Particularly in tropical regions, but also in France. The first actions must be to help it become more resilient to continue to produce efficiently, despite all.
  • Cause: it is one of the major players in global warming, because it, alone, emits between 20 and 25% of man-made greenhouse gases. We must therefore aid it in warming the planet to a lesser degree, and in particular, limit its carbon dioxide emissions, especially methane and nitrous oxide, both deleterious specialties which, unfortunately, are respectively 23 and 298 times more “warming” than carbon dioxide.
  • Solution: it has one of the only tools available to help solve the problem: the reduction of the content in carbon dioxide via its sequestration in the trees and the ground. It is therefore ardently encouraged to strongly increase its contribution to the carbon sequestration.
  1. Help agriculture produce, despite everything.

Unfortunately, the list of the harmful effects of climate change on agriculture is very long, and the aids thought to strengthen its protection are relatively limited; but this isn’t a reason to not work resolutely, given the magnitude of the issues.

The cyclones will be more violent, snatching all cultures in their paths, destroying the dams and flooding the land with salt water. They’ll hit tropical and coastal islands more strongly, such as French West Indies. In truth, faced with such violence, it is not very clear how we could better protect agriculture. On the other hand, metropolitan France is also subject to storms of growing force; for example, in the Southeast in the fall, there were the « Cévennes episodes » the violence of which increased with the temperature of the Mediterranean. Fortunately, regarding agriculture, these incidents take place in the fall…

But we can also look at Landes, currently the largest forest in Europe, composed entirely of maritime pines. This region is attached to the Atlantic Ocean with prevailing winds from the West, making it particularly sensitive to storms. The storms in December 1999 destroyed nearly 30 percent of the pines, and Klaus, in January 2009, destroyed more than half of what was left. Who will believe, with the warming of the planet, that there will be no more storms in the Landes in the 40 years to come and we’ll be able to harvest the trees that were replanted after Klaus without any problems? Carpentry is now seriously threatened in this region. Research efforts and help aimed at radically changing production have now become priorities.

The melting of glaciers and drying up of groundwater threaten irrigation. This phenomenon evidently affects Asia much more, where much of the food production depends on irrigated agriculture out of the seven major rivers that descend from the Himalayas, but it also covers much of the South of France. Irrigation systems implemented centuries ago at the foot of the Alps and the Pyrenees are now at high-risk. The near exclusion devotion of corn production irrigated in the Southwest will be very difficult to maintain. It is thus highly important to invest in preparing the following: stockpiling of hillside waters, trials of alternative, less water-intensive crops such as sorghum, generalization of drop by drop to economize water, permanent coverage of soil, agro forestry, changes in cultural practices, etc.

In the northern half of France, where the future climate will come to resemble that of the current climate of the Southwest, it is not unreasonable to begin storing water now, in some form or another, that will fall in abundant quantity in winter to start irrigating in the summer. In general, the research on the establishment of agriculture that is less water-intensive and less sensitive to the extremes (floods followed by droughts), is even more underdeveloped.

We will have to face new health risks. In short, if we get warmer in France, we will also get all the diseases of the hot countries! With regards to agriculture, there will be a substantial increase in cryptogamic and fungal diseases (caused by parasitic fungi): rust, powdery mildew, scab, mildew, gravel, fusariosis… and by attacks from tropical parasites. For instance, everyone can already see that olive production established on national territory or the palm tree in the Southeast, the plane tree in the Southwest, and even boxwood in the castles of the Loire are now being directly threatened. In terms of breeding, the list of new diseases that could spread is long and frightening: Bluetongue, AHS, Rift Valley fever, West Nile fever, leishmaniasis, leptospirosis, etc. A big investment in research and support for farmers affected by these new health crises will emerge in the coming years. This is the time to take advantage of the fact that France has two of the largest and most prestigious agricultural research centers in the world, one on tropical agriculture (Cirad) and the other on temperate agriculture (Inra)!

Set up agriculture that can withstand heat waves. Crops that are well adapted to our climate are not to heat waves as there were hardly any in the old days! Or they took place exclusively in the month of August, when the grain was already in silos. This risk increased with genetic selection, leading us to sow seeds that have high-productivity when all is well, but are also extremely fragile in the event of excessive heat or moisture. Over 25° and wheat grains, for example, risk ‘scalding’ (more or less total stop of their fullness or ripening, which leads to wrinkled grains and low specific weight). The risk equates to a loss of 1.5 quintals/hectare per day above 25°!

From now on, we need to combine productivity and resilience: find grain (likely from blends of several varieties) that produce perhaps a little bit less the years where it’s very warm, but that produce nonetheless, even if the weather is bad! Vineyards will equally be very affected and gradually migrate from Southern to Northern Europe. Central France will be less affected than Sicily but the vineyards of Bordeaux, Languedoc and Côtes-du-Rhône will need very strong adaptations and will face new competition from England and Denmark!

  1.   Help agriculture reduce its production of greenhouse gases.

To reduce the production of carbon dioxide, but also to improve the fertility of the lands and radically reduce the use of pesticides, we must gradually plow less and less, and eventually abandon this practice altogether, even though it is wholly symbolic of an activity whose practitioners have long been referred to as ‘laborers.’ Consider the fact that plowing one hectare means turning up 4,000 tons of Earth which requires 15 to 40 liters of fuel.

These former laborers must gradually become genuine « earthworm farmers” (they actually play a key role in maintaining soil life: digestion of plant residues, transfer of fertilizers, absorption and burying of rainwaters, etc.). But also, being « breeders of fungi, » they ensure the circulation of nutrients in the soil and bacteria (to think that in 1 gram of forest land there are 4,000 species of bacteria and 2 000 fungi, all very useful!). If we want this practice to be accelerated, we must implement aid for the first few years of conversion in which we will face unknown situations and soil fertility and biodiversity will not yet be restored. It takes three to seven years to rebuild its herd of earthworms, for example, and to better control self-propagating plants (‘weeds’) that will no longer be submerged. The model implemented in Europe to help with the conversion to organic could likely be weakened in the face of this different kind of challenge.

We must also relocate productions across the national territory to reduce transport of food and intermediate production over long distances. The efficiency of choosing to produce our wheat in the Paris Basin, our potatoes in Picardy, our milk in Normandy, our pigs and chickens in Brittany, etc. and to circulate hordes of trucks on our roads can be revisited in light of the challenges of global warming. As for the consumer, education and mobilization to eat local, in-season produce is absolutely essential. Considering that local seasonal vegetables ‘produce’ 20 times less gas greenhouse emissions than off-season vegetables imported by plane.

However, we’re still at the outskirts of the problem of global warming caused by agriculture. The crux of the matter stems from methane and nitrous oxide.

Although rice paddies are big producers, methane primarily comes from the stomachs of ruminants that re-emit them in the from of farts and burps. It is estimated that livestock alone emit 37% of all methane due to human activities (of the order of 2.2 billion tons out of nearly 6). Here, we are faced with two challenges: firstly, we must act on the feeding of livestock to reduce methane production and most importantly, go along with the natural movement which consists of radically lowering the consumption meat and dairy products in countries that eat far too much of them, such as France. We must move away from a 20th century model in which we continue to produce and consume more and more of these products every year by setting up industries of mass production and transition to a 21st century model in which we to produce less yet better products, with a focus on quality and pay more farmers to do just this.

Revolutionizing farming exactly in the same way we did with the French wine industry when we went from an annual consumption of 140 litres of wine in the 50s to just 40 liters, entirely abandoning the production of ‘piquette’ (French for plonk) for the benefit of the good and very good wines sold for significantly more..

Nitrous oxide, which remains in the atmosphere for so long that it warms it 298 times more than carbonic gas and causes half of the agricultural greenhouse gas emissions on its own, is basically a by-product of nitrogen fertilizer. We consume a considerable amount of the latter, either in the form of manure in the areas of breeding or in the form of mineral fertilizers in grain areas. Crops are far from consuming all of it and the remainder pollutes our groundwater, makes our ponds and lakes eutrophied and covers our beaches with algae. Most importantly, once the ground has been bare due to plowing, the different processes of mineralization, nitrification, and denitrification cause a large amount of this deleterious gas to be evaporated. It is therefore essential to act decisively on this issue.

Solutions do exist: cease of tillage, permanent coverage of soil, and especially transitioning from artificial nitrogen to natural nitrogen from plants that attain nitrogen from the air naturally and leave it in the ground in the form of nodules around their roots: legumes (soy, pea, bean, bean, lens, lupin, faba, etc., but also forage legumes: clover, alfalfa, vetches, etc.).

Recall that in this area, France has fallen sharply since 1960, the date at which the European community authorized entry of U.S. soybeans used in animal feed without tariffs. In 2012, cultivated legumes alone represented less than 3% of arable surfaces, compared with around 17% in the 1960s. A public policy to encourage the return of legumes in Europe is absolutely essential. Whether this be directly, or in conjunction with grains, each crop helping the other to grow: these are  » low-input crop combinations », or even « intermediate crops », between two crops, such as, mustard or phacelia (they then ensure permanent ground cover while securing carbon and nitrogen).

  1.   Encourage agriculture to cool the atmosphere.

A policy for the fight against global warming first and foremost consists of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, once this carbon is in the atmosphere, we can also consider recovering it for reburial, either in the sea (which is complicated and risky), or in and on the ground. When we become aware of the fact that the total annual global greenhouse gas emissions is only 0.4 percent of what is stored in our soils (less than 5 m on the surface of the ground) or on the ground (from the surface to 15 m), it seems only logical that we encourage farmers to increase (ultimately four thousandths) their carbon storage effort.

Two main methods for this. First of all, no more plowing or tilling, so that the carbon and nitrogen content in the stems of the collected plants can return back to the earth and be transformed by earthworms and other members of the incredible soil fauna (remember that less than 1 m² houses 260 million living things!). Next, plant trees everywhere! This means massively reforesting everywhere that has been deforested (currently we deforest about 18 million hectares per year on the planet, so, in order to stop the warming, we would need to reforest 300 million hectares!). But this also involves re-planting hedges to generalize the Agro forestry. For 50 years, we have spent fortunes on financing the uprooting of hedges throughout our national territory. Now we need to spend the same amount helping farmers replant! In the same way that we have restored tramways and bicycle paths destroyed decades earlier in many cities…

We’re here before a genuinely virtuous circle: with Agro-forestry we can simultaneously continue to produce intensively, increase soil fertility, reduce pesticide use (all “crop assistance” animals that eat small animals who attack our crops need to stay in hedges for at least a period of their lives), and cool the planet. More reason to heavily invest in this sense. Farmers need to be financially assisted throughout the transition period during which crops will be slightly less good and humanely help them through the exchange of good practices, consulting, and training.

Good news: agriculture can once again become a job-creating sector. Second good news: in a few years, if we decide to and provide the human and financial resources, agriculture can reduce its own greenhouse gas production while simultaneously capturing a large amount of the CO2 that our cities, factories, and transportation systems will continue to (slightly) produce.

Invest heavily in change management

As can be seen above, all of these fundamental agricultural changes are firstly cultural changes rather than investment in physical capital. Evidently, it will be necessary to finance, for instance, investments in water (even if it isn’t big dams that we’ll be needing for irrigation but rather a multiplication of mares and other hillside reservoirs…) but also in methanisation, composting, etc. The crucial investment will be in awareness, training, and change management. It consists of inventing a new agriculture which in itself does not cost more than the former.

However, just as it was for the beginning of the development of « chemically intensive » agriculture, it will be necessary to multiply all support processes, in agricultural schools, continuing education programs, chambers of agriculture and all of the associations and federations (such as the Centers for Agricultural Technical Studies, Agricultural Development Group, Federation of Organic Farmers, Agriculture Conservation Associations, Agro-Forestry Associations, Vivéa training research fund , etc.).

Added to this will be a strong impetus to research within this domain (especially applied research) and strong support for the development of start-ups. They actually need to be encouraged to increase in number in order to invent new agriculture combining ecology, genetics, bio-inspired chemistry and digitalization because it is not certain that the large organizations and companies currently dominating agriculture have enough imagination on their own for inventing the agriculture of tomorrow.

Lastly, it will be necessary to increase incentive systems as well as financial support to incite change. The idea is to contract farmers who wish to change their practice to assure them that they will be able to survive the transition period, a positive incentive that contrasts with the traditional policy of widespread control and suspicion. However, this will require raising substantial funds.