By Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, for Climate Connections
June 18, 2012, Rio de Janeiro – At the UN conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa last December, representatives of developed nations presented a plan to combat climate change through sustainable agricultural techniques in Africa. This plan, dubbed “climate smart agriculture,” would purportedly reduce and sequester carbon emissions while conserving soils and feeding a continent. It seemed that developed countries had at last listened to the growing concern and criticism of industrial agriculture’s disastrous ecological effects.
International social movements like La Via Campesina had argued compellingly for years that “small farmers cool the planet,” relying on many studies that ecological agriculture can reduce climate change. Ecological agriculture or “agroecology” uses no chemicals like fertilizers or pesticides derived from fossil fuels, and biodiverse agriculture systems greatly reduce carbon in the atmosphere while maintaining local resilience in the face of climate change. Researchers estimate that the global food system emits 30% of all greenhouse gases, meaning that a global transition to agroecology would have a significant impact. What’s more, labor-intensive ecological techniques do not sacrifice quality or farming livelihoods.
Unfortunately, while world leaders may have listened, they had completely misunderstood.
What they heard was that food plants absorb carbon. Thus world leaders understood the promise of agroecology as a carbon offset: corporations would treat farms adopting “climate smart” techniques as offsets, meaning small farmers throughout the continent of Africa would become dependent on polluting corporations whose bottom line was still profit-making and increasing market-share. “Climate smart agriculture” would be a tool for corporations to keep polluting as usual while also expanding their reach and production into Africa. Many critics in Durban charged that “climate smart agriculture” was the first step to a land grab, or in effect, a “soil grab.”
And because the developed nations’ representatives focused only on how plants could sequester carbon, they missed the fundamental strength of agroecology: agrochemicals are the problem, and we don’t need them.
“Climate smart agriculture” still uses fossil fuel-based chemicals. A UN-commissioned panel of experts issued a report again touting the climate change reduction potential of sustainable agriculture. The Montpellier Commission report advocated a transition to agroecology, but defined it as a technique that can be used with existing industrial practices like “transgenic crops, conservation farming, microdosing of fertilizers and herbicides, and integrated pest management.”
But as prominent agroecology scholar Miguel Altieri has recently written, “Agroecology does not need to be combined with other approaches… it has consistently proven capable of sustainably increasing productivity and has far greater potential for fighting hunger [than industrial agriculture].”
Small farmers do well working agroecologically: they produce the same yield or better, they build soil, and they save money on chemical inputs. So agroecology is very profitable. But the profit is decentralized, meaning corporations can’t access it. This would explain why corporations are attempting to disguise a resource grab like “climate smart agriculture” as something ecological, because of its greater potential for consolidating profits.
There are renewed calls at Rio+20 by these same developed nations for “climate smart agriculture,” but as Pat Mooney of the Canadian advocacy organization ETC Group said at an opening workshop of the Peoples’ Summit on Friday, “This is not an issue of whether or not it is nicer to have organic farms and local food systems. This is an issue of whether we will eat.” The closer one looks at “climate smart agriculture,” the more it comes to seem like another false solution to climate change.
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