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Agriculture and Climate Change

June 4, 2023

The discussion around agriculture and climate change has been ramping up over the past few years. While there have been pressures on agriculture to change and reduce "emissions" leading up to this phase, there is an increasing tension with more and more calls to make drastic changes. To get a sense of the rhetoric around the issue, take a listen to John Kerry's speech at The Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) Summit.  It starts at around the 21 minutes mark and is about 22 minutes long.

For a few examples of where this type of rhetoric can go, take a look at the Netherlands, where farmers are being offered 120% of their farms value to sell. Sounds pretty good, but the catch is that if they don't accept, they will be forced to sell in addition they aren't "allowed" to start up farms anywhere in the EU. There is also a push in Ireland to cull huge numbers of cows to achieve climate targets.

Kerry laments that agriculture causes about 33% of the worlds "emissions", but according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agriculture generates 10% to 12% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, with packaging, transportation, and waste management generating the remainder.

"We can't get to net-zero, we don't get this job done unless agriculture is front and center as part of the solution. So all of us understand here the depths of this mission." ... "lives depend on world leaders and scientists developing the tools necessary to lower agriculture emissions.... I refuse to call it climate change anymore. It's not change. It's a crisis."

He discusses how many deaths are currently caused by a changing climate and how many are estimated in the future if we don't do something. It really pulls at your heart strings. Hopefully Mr. Kerry is also giving speeches at military conferences discussing how many lives could be saved and how much carbon wouldn't be emitted by curbing military involvement or arms sales in however many countries they currently operate in/sell to.

I'm not necessarily against progress or technology in agriculture, but I am certainly pessimistic. I think it is inevitable and could be a powerful way to produce more food in ways that will hopefully have less impact on our environment and more of a positive impact on the people it feeds. When I say that, I don't mean simply it will emit less carbon, I mean from a holistic standpoint, if new technology can use fewer chemicals, focus on soil health and produce food that nourishes (and not simply feeds), then that is great. 

That said, I think without a nuanced approach towards agriculture, one that is not solely dependent on technology, focuses exclusively on "emissions" and calories produced, our food systems (which will corelate to our health) will eventually go the way of many other professions and industries - a heavily regulated monolith with ever increasing farm sizes, profit driven policies and little opportunity for young people or choice for the consumer.

The solutions that many people talk about regarding innovation in the food sector are technology based. They will require huge investment and capital, which will inevitably lead to fewer and fewer people responsible for food production and greater control by those who control the money.

The interesting thing, and in my opinion a huge flaw in their argument (and tell that they aren't sincere in their concern), is that the cow (a truly amazing beast) is a target. Because cows produce methane, the conclusion of the "scientists" and spreadsheet gurus is that we must reduce the number of cows. Pretty cut and dry, except like most things there is nuance. A great explanation on how the methane cows "emit" is actually part of a natural cycle can be found here and the movie Sacred Cow is a great watch regarding our food systems and the benefit that cows and other ruminants can have to our health and environment.

Another thing to consider is that while many agricultural systems and new "food" technologies like fake meat are scalable and can be technology driven, the cow isn't that simple. Even if those cows end up in a feedlot that can be mechanized and seem like an assembly line, they were born on a farm somewhere, nursing on their mother and eating grass for several months. They haven't figured out how simulate this at scale or cost effectively and I don't think they can. There are some things that technology and human ingenuity can't do (I hope). They can create factories where pork or chicken come out the back end, but they can't do it with beef.

In my opinion, if they actually wanted to remove carbon from the atmosphere effectively, they would engage with regenerative farmers, agroforestry experts and ecologist on how to work with nature, sequester carbon in the soils and trees and produce high quality food. This could employ millions of people, improve the environment (in countless ways far beyond removing carbon from the atmosphere), produce superior food (and therefore a healthier population) and change the trajectory of our society. This would build resiliency into our systems as well, rather than simply (and arrogantly) trying to prevent changes to our climate.

Instead they look for solutions in the same place they found the problem. More technology, more control and more shaming of anyone who speaks up or asks questions.

The solution is in your back yard, in your neighborhood and in your community.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience" C.S. Lewis

Mike Dougherty

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