Ep 7: Climate-smart food systems value nature, health & farmers

What role do agriculture and food systems play in climate change? What does the planet face if destructive practices aren’t altered? What happens if food systems get climate-smart?

In Episode 7 of Earth Intelligence, we discuss the major value to those farmers, corporations, and regions that shift to regenerative practices, among them: better profits, better soils, enhanced resilience to natural and economic shocks—and, by the way, all of that could save the planet.

This last point is now also much more than an environmentalist’s wish. A key takeaway from this episode is that when climate-smart practices go mainstream:

Everyone who plays an active role in securing human health and wellbeing, by securing a more stable climate future, positions themselves to capture some portion of the most significant rapid increase in investment in world history.

We cannot speak about climate-smart agriculture, at this point, without speaking about climate-smart finance and investment.

  • This month, the Federal Reserve—the central bank of the United States—issued a report calling on financial institutions to assess and report in detail all known climate-related risks.
  • This comes two months after the Commodity Futures Trading Commission—a financial regulator that helps to define lawful practices in the trading of agriculture all commodities—reported that climate change will eventually cause the US financial system and wider economy to fail.

Industrial agriculture—for all its gains in production and all the science going into it—is out of step with the demands of a climate-smart future economy.

  • Agriculture accounts for 11% of global heating emissions. Climate disruption is depleting water supplies and other benefits of health watersheds on which agriculture depends, existentially.
  • Industrial farming has so depleted carbon-based soil ecology, that fertility and productivity are at risk, as well as the resilience of soils and their ability to capture carbon dioxide—the primary atmospheric driver of global heating and climate destabilization.
  • The status quo has us on track to experience multiple breadbasket failure—the simultaneous harvest failure of multiple major foodgrowing regions—in the next 15-30 years.

The status quo is also grossly unfair to farmers:

  • While major corporations build economies of scale, capture incentives for industrialization of production, and take more and more of farmers’ own revenues for seed and soil-enhancing chemicals, the farmers take on more and more of the material risk.
  • The burden facing farmers spreads through the whole economy: their lack of leverage over the market’s way of rewarding quality work translates into unsustainable land use, degradation of fresh water supplies and ecosystems, and production of unhealthy foods.
  • Incentivizing production of unhealthy foods as the market standard generates pervasive hidden costs all of society has to pay.

Unhealthy food systems also create risks to public health and economic wellbeing. One of the reasons the COVID-19 pandemic has been so devastating in the United States is the prevalence of food-related non-communicable diseases across the population. The catastrophic costs of the pandemic, as measured in health impacts, lives lost, worsening food insecurity, and degraded economic wellbeing, mean the market for healthy, sustainably grown food must include most people everywhere.

We need farmers to shift to nature-positive production, to play a role in mitigating climate disruption, and to be rewarded for it. We need their choices in this transition to climate-smart practices to provide healthier food for people, and we need food system incentives to secure and expand on those improvements.