This week Science published research ($ub. req’d) detailing the vast, global food-security implications of warming temperatures. The colored graphics are nothing short of terrifying when you realize the blotches of red and orange covering the better part of the globe indicate significantly warmer summers in coming decades.
The implications of the article are clear — we need to be utilizing agricultural methods and crops that can withstand the potential myriad impacts of global climate change, especially warmer temperatures. The article significantly notes, “The probability exceeds 90 percent that by the end of the century, the summer average temperature will exceed the hottest summer on record throughout the tropics and subtropics. Because these regions are home to about half of the world’s population, the human consequences of global climate change could be enormous.”
Whether you believe global warming is part of a “natural cycle” or a man-made phenomenon is irrelevant. The bottom line is that our earth is rapidly warming, and this is going to drastically affect our food supply. We must undertake both the enormous task of reducing our carbon emissions now to avert the worst, while at the same time adapting our society to the vast and multitudinous effects of unavoidable global climate change. Failing to do either will, as the Science article indicates, have dire effects on a large portion of our world’s population.
Determining the best course of action for ensuring food security in the face of global climate change remains a challenging task. Recognizing that climate change is slated to affect developing countries and small-scale farmers the most is a crucial point. Such understanding enables people to realize that viable solutions must be accessible, affordable, and relevant to the billions of small-scale farmers in the developing world. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the solutions on the table fail to meet these criteria.
Last week, Monsanto made a big public relations splash by filing documents with the FDA regarding a drought-tolerant GM corn variety it is developing with a German company, BASF. Monsanto claims that in field trials, the corn got 6-10 percent higher yields in drought-prone areas last year, but the release is extremely short on details. Regardless of the reality, Monsanto is presenting the corn as a way to help improve on-farm productivity in other parts of the world, notably Africa.
Yet, absent from the media hype were the many technical and social problems with Monsanto’s corn.
A little over a year ago, the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics held a conference specific to drought and drought-tolerant crops. As a follow up, the Australian government’s Grains Research and Development Corporation published a piece detailing the research shared and lessons learned from the conference. One topic addressed was the potential of GM drought-tolerant varieties. In the analysis stated, “The most notable and problematic (effect) is the tendency of drought-tolerant GM lines to not perform as well under favourable conditions. This appears to be the case for CIMMYT’s GM wheat and Monsanto’s GM corn. The flaw is a profound one. It amounts to shifting the yield losses experienced in dry seasons onto the good years.” In essence, farmers might get a small bump in yield during droughts, but will suffer yield losses when conditions are favorable. Considering that climate scientists continually point to increased erratic weather patterns as a symptom of global warming, this reality is clearly disastrous. Surely there must be better solutions that increase production under all weather conditions
One promising solution appeared in an article published in BioScience in 2005. The authors outlined the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial, a long-term comparison of organic and conventional farming systems conducted between 1981 and 2002. Significantly, the trials found that organic production yielded equivalently to conventional systems after a transition period. Yet even more importantly, Rodale found that in drought conditions in which rainfall was 30 percent less than normal, organic systems yielded 28 to 34 percent higher than conventional systems. Rodale equates the yield gain to increased water retention as a result of higher soil organic carbon. Water volumes percolating through the various systems were 15-20 percent higher in the organic systems as compared with the conventional systems over the 12 year period.
The BioScience article additionally noted that the organic systems used 28 to 32 percent fewer energy inputs, retained soil carbon and soil nitrogen better, and offered a higher profitability over conventional systems. What is so significant about this research is that it demonstrates the ability of organic agriculture to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions with fewer energy inputs and withstand climate change impacts like drought with greater efficacy.
Most importantly, it offers an economical and accessible form of agriculture for billions of small-scale farmers. Scaling up agricultural development in rural areas like Africa can be accomplished with organic methods like manure, compost, and cover crops. Even the United Nations recognized the opportunity presented by organic production in a report late last year. Conventional breeding and improved seeds are also part of the solution. Between 1939 and 2005, conventional breeding contributed significantly to an almost six-fold yield-gain in corn in the U.S.
This point is crucial, since the seeds Monsanto is planning to release will be owned by the company and sold at exorbitant prices. GMO seeds cost from two to over four times as much as conventional seed varieties, and the disparity is increasing. How will small-scale farmers pay for such seeds? How will they pay for the chemicals and synthetic fertilizers necessary for such production? Shouldn’t we be looking for solutions that are viable and realistic for those people who are most food insecure? Monsanto does not have the answers here, but organic methods can and should be a big part of the solution.
The future of food security in the face of warming temperatures cannot be based on a system of profits and research that fails to address the needs of food-insecure farmers. We need real solutions that will enable farmers to maintain and increase yields with those materials and techniques already available to them with little extra cost: animal manure, increased irrigation opportunities, cover crops, compost, and integrated pest-management systems. Organic agriculture will reduce, mitigate, and adapt to climate change impacts and still remain accessible and economic to the billions of subsistence farmers around the world. If we really want to fight the food crisis, let’s start investing in and promoting organic production today to ensure better climate adaptation in the future.