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Three Crises, One Solution: Change the Way We Produce Food

World hunger is on the rise. Scientists just moved up the deadline for addressing the looming climate crisis. Small independent farms are failing at an alarming rate.

According to three recent studies, one big change could go a long way toward addressing all three of these crises. By transitioning, on a global scale, to organic regenerative agriculture, we could feed more people, sequester more carbon and improve the economic prospects for farmers.

Three crises, one solution—a solution that will require a massive overhaul of food and farming policy, and a paradigm change in consumer behavior.

Can we act in time?

World hunger still on the rise

Large-scale, industrial agriculture has long been touted as the solution to feeding the world. But despite the planting of more than 457 million acres of genetically modified (GM) crops in 28 countries worldwide, a new report reveals that world hunger is actually getting worse, not better.

In “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports that world hunger is on the rise for the third year in a row. The number of people suffering worldwide from food insecurity reached nearly 821 million in 2017, an increase from about 804 million the year before.

The FAO report highlights the relationship between climate change-related disasters and the “downward spiral of increased food insecurity and malnutrition:

Climate-related disasters create and sustain poverty, contributing to increased food insecurity and malnutrition as well as current and future vulnerability to climate extremes. They also have impacts on livelihoods and livelihoods assets – especially of the poor – contributing to greater risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. Prolonged or recurrent climate extremes lead to diminished coping capacity, loss of livelihoods, distress migration and destitution.

The FAO report pinpoints the need for resilience-focused strategies as means of addressing hunger and malnutrition:

Addressing climate variability and extremes and their impact on food security and nutrition requires a focus on resilience.

Regenerative agriculture, with its focus on biodiversity and soil health which increases the soil’s capacity to retain water during periods of drought, has the potential to build resilient local farming systems that provide abundant, nutritious food.

Healthy soil sequesters more carbon

A recent study published by the University of California-Berkley found that certain agricultural techniques focused on restoring soil health, such as cover cropping, purposeful grazing and the planting of legumes on rangelands, can help sequester enough carbon in the soil to make a significant contribution in the global fight against climate change.

When combined with “aggressive carbon emission reductions,” the researchers determined that soil carbon sequestration is the most effective—and also one of the most low-tech—tools available to help slow global warming.

In an article for Berkeley News, Whendee Silver, senior author of the study and professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, said:

"As someone who has been working on carbon sequestration for a long time, I have always had this question in the back of my mind, 'Will sequestration in soils make a difference with climate change at a global scale?' We found that there are a wide range of practices deployable on a large scale that could have a detectable worldwide impact. A big take-home message is that we know how to do this, it is achievable."

The researchers also found that using biochar—a charcoal-like substance that’s made by burning organic material from agricultural and forestry wastes in an oxygen-free environment—can help farmers sequester even more carbon in the soil.

Biochar is extremely beneficial in the fight against climate change as it can sequester a billion tons of carbon annually, and hold it in the soil for thousands of years. Biochar also contributes to food security by increasing crop yields and retaining more water in areas prone to drought. (Learn more about biochar here and here.)

Healthy farming means healthy profits for farmers

Farming in a way that protects nature can be of benefit to the environment as well as the economic livelihood of farmers, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. A global assessment by more than a dozen scientists in five countries found that nearly one-third of the world’s farms have adopted more environmentally friendly practices while continuing to be productive.

Using information on hundreds of projects and initiatives worldwide, researchers found that environmentally friendly practices, such as no-till, pasture and forage redesign, conservation agriculture and silvopasture, the practice of incorporating trees on farmland to provide shelter for livestock, are being used on 163 million farms covering more than a billion acres.

"Although we have a long way to go, I'm impressed by how far farmers across the world and especially in less developed countries have come in moving our food-production systems in a healthy direction," said John Reganold, Washington State University Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology and a co-author of the paper.

Both time and research have shown that industrial, chemical-intensive agriculture is not the solution to feeding the world, and is in fact moving us backwards in terms of being able to solve world hunger, while at the same time reversing global warming.

If we want to build a healthy planet with a stable climate, we must invest in a food and farming system that promotes healthy humans, healthy animals, healthy plants and healthy soil.

Julie Wilson is communications associate for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.