Agriculture in the face of climate change: the kick-off

Agriculture in the face of climate change: the kick-off

Our year theme for 2020 is “Agriculture in the face of climate change”. What are the effects of climate change on agriculture? How can farmers deal with more extreme weather, droughts and crop insecurity? And what is the role of agriculture in mitigating climate change, in limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases? This year, we want to address all of these questions, and more, in discussions, interactive sessions and dialogues in which farmers, researchers and activists are included.

On Thursday 20th of February, we had the kick-off event of this year theme. We started with an introduction on the topic, in which we raised some numbers from the IPCC report on Climate Change and Land. In this report, it is stated that 23% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to agriculture and forestry. They are responsible for 13% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, 44% of methane (CH4), and 82% of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. During the kick-off, we were happy to have two speakers who saw a more positive, empowering future for farming.

The first speaker was Meino Smit, a bio-dynamic arable farmer himself, who finished his PHD research some years ago under supervision of Jan Douwe van der Ploeg. In his PHD, he calculated the energetic value of outputs and inputs in agriculture, direct and indirect land use, direct and indirect labour in order to assess sustainability of agriculture. He came to the conclusion that between 1950 and 2015, the energetic output per ha has increased by 12%, while the input increased by 619%. This means that the input/output ratio has become very inefficient. Since 1970 the output/input ratio is 0.2, meaning that the agricultural sector uses about five times more energy than it produces. What makes his research special, is that he took into account all of the indirect energy inputs, such as the raw materials, which increasingly replaced the direct inputs from labour. Regarding the future, he says that replacing fossil fuel-based energy by renewable energy will not work, unless we also reduce the demand for energy with 90 percent. This means that we will have to increase the manual labour, and the number of people working in agriculture will have to amount to 5 percent of the working population to make this work.

Another issue is that the amount of land used for agriculture has increased a lot in the last fifty years, while the number of farms diminished. We need reduce the 5,000,000 ha that was used for agriculture in 2015, to 2,000,000 in 2040, which is even less than it was used in 1950.

Meino’s innovative talk raised a number of questions, especially about his point that capital will decrease and manual labour will increase. Someone asked how he calculated the exact data for 2040, to which Meino responded that he based himself on the Paris Agreement and a future in which the goals of the Paris Agreement would be met. Someone else stated that labour is incredibly expensive, and that that’s the main reason why farmers chose to invest in machines, because otherwise they could not sustain themselves. Meino answered that labour in the Netherlands is very expensive because it is very heavily taxed, and that machines are less taxed. But this is something that could in theory be changed. He also gave the example of the system in Israel, where people work in an office for 10 months and in the field for 2 months per year. Regarding the question of how to bring about change, Meino is certain that it needs to happen through bottom-up initiatives.

After a short break, it was time to introduce our second speaker, bio-dynamic farmer Joost van Strien from farm the Zonnegoed. He calls himself part of a “rare species”, because he is both a climate activist and a farmer. His farm consists of 90 hectares, and transitioned to organic and then a bio-dynamic farm in the 90’s. In the last years, Joost has made even more adjustments to limit the impact on the environment and to become as climate neutral as possible. Soil management is his central theme. He does everything he can to increase organic matter in the soil. He doesn’t plough, he works with shallow cultivating machines and he grows green manures as long as possible. Using the technique of controlled traffic farming allows him to have unridden cultivation beds. He went into detail about the measures that he has taken. He started with the technique of minimum tillage three years ago, when his plough was too old, and he decided to stop ploughing all together instead of getting a new one. The advantages of the no-till method are meaningful: the soil life takes care of mineralization, there’s better soil stability and there’s better water management. Above that, Joost doesn’t need to import nitrogen, as he makes use of nitrogen-fixating legumes.

After his talk, several questions came up, for example, if the green manure crops are difficult to get rid of and become weeds in the following growing season. Joost says that most of the green manure crops aren’t really a problem, except that the sunflowers do seed and therefore keep reproducing. Someone else asked how he thinks that other farmers can be motivated to change as well. Joost answered that he does this by telling his story, by inviting other farmers onto his farm and by inspiring them with techniques like the cut-and-carry method. There was also a question about the financial sustainability of his farm, which Joost cleared up by stating that, compared to the other organic farmers in Flevoland, he has one of the highest incomes. When Meino Smit was asked to react to Joost his story, he said that he was doing good things, but that it’s not climate-neutral, because there are still a lot of external inputs (for example the materials of which the farming machines are made of), that are not taken into account.

The last part of the evening was an interactive session, in which we invited the audience to think about questions such as “On what scale do you think change should happen first”, and “What is or should be the role of the farmer in mitigating climate change?”, and to discuss these questions in small groups. We ended with a short plenary discussion, before everyone left Impulse feeling inspired.

In the coming months, we plan to organize events about the role of biodiversity in climate change mitigation and adaptation, about the influence of the IPCC and about what we can expect from the CAP reform that will be implemented in 2021. Hope to see you there!