The Ancient Road to Our Sustainable Future
Posted on 25 Jun 2022
The scientific notion that very small changes in the Earth’s atmospheric composition could bring about climate change was first identified by physicist John Tyndall in the 1860s. In April 1896, a seminal paper by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius entitled “On the influence of Carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature on the ground” first predicted that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could substantially alter the surface temperature through what is now known as the greenhouse effect.
Although global warming is a relatively recently discovered phenomenon, the effect of weather on our agriculture, and ultimately our livelihoods has been understood by indigenous communities for millennia. While indigenous people account for only 5% of the world’s population, they inhabit 22% of the world’s surface area and can be seen to be custodians of 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.
A research article looking into the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of the Myan people inhabiting Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula suggested that the use of traditional forecasting techniques based on millennia of weather knowledge is not at odds with modern forecasting techniques, which are themselves based on previous weather patterns. In addition, the TEK methods of weather prediction use a wide range of natural elements to make their predictions, including those from both the land and sky.
The ancient indigenous people created a natural link between long, medium and short -term weather forecasting, and the way they would manage their land, crops and livestock, based on a deep understanding of their specific environment. Critically, this link was integral to their cultures and methods of government and administration.
This ancient three way amalgamation between weather knowledge, land management and social practices is now starting to be seen in modern government policy.
Today, an estimated 10% of European greenhouse gas emissions were linked to agricultural activities.
In 2021, the Cop26 climate change conference secured a pledge from 45 governments for urgent action and investment to protect nature, and shift to more sustainable ways of farming. In addition, 95 high-profile companies committed to being ‘Nature Positive’, and reversing the overall decline in our natural world by 2030.
In addition to these arguably vague pledges, 26 countries including India, Colombia, Vietnam, Germany, Ghana, and Australia made firm commitments to change their national agricultural and environmental policies to become more sustainable, and less polluting. Importantly, they committed to the scientific investment needed to achieve a sustainable agricultural industry, and protect food supplies from the unpredictable nature of global warming. These commitments included plans for:
Germany to lower emissions from land use by 25m tones by 2030
The UK’s to engage 75% of farmers in low carbon practices by 2030
These commitments also included those by Brazil to scale its ABC+ low carbon farming programme to 72m hectares, saving 1 billion tones of emissions by 2030. This plan involved providing farmers who implement sustainable agriculture practices with low interest loans. The practices include those familiar to the farmers who adopted regenerative agricultural practices, including no-till, restoration of degraded pasture, planting of indigenous forests and biological nitrogen fixation.
Climate Smart Agriculture
With global funding from both private and public sources, agricultural practices that support climate safe ways of producing our food are becoming increasingly possible.
Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) is a non prescriptive methodology that is situation specific, that has been defined as “an approach for transforming and reorienting agricultural development under the new realities of climate change” is built on three foundational and interlinked pillars:
CSA aims to increase agricultural productivity and incomes from the production of crops, livestock and fish without having a negative impact on the environment. This will have the effect of increasing food and nutritional security. Importantly, it is focused on sustainable intensification.
The ability for farmers to reduce their exposure to short-term risks, as well as giving them the flexibility to adapt to long-term environmental changes. Adaptation is built on the concept of ecosystems, and the benefits that the interdependent infrastructure of local resources provides.
When possible, agriculture should help to reduce or remove greenhouse gasses from the environment. This implies the avoidance of deforestation, and the use of plants, trees and soil as natural carbon sinks to remove CO2 from the environment.
The key characteristics of CSA go beyond simply reducing greenhouse emissions. It encompasses the understanding that compromises will need to be made in the real world, and that all three pillars are not always practically achievable. It also encompasses more than just food production, it includes a ‘landscape approach’ that includes the coordinated use of adjoining land, as well as the use of information technology.
Importance of Weather Forecasting
Understanding the weather is a fundamental element of sustainable agriculture - it gives farmers a way to increase productivity without harming their environment. The weather influences virtually every aspect of agricultural production, including pest control, use of soil additives, tilling, planting and machinery hire. Long term forecasts enable farmers to plan their crop selection, as well as reducing the impact of their activities on their broader environments.
Over the last 25 years, insurance payments to farmers who have lost crops through drought and famine have increased by 300%. By the end of 2020, the Atlantic hurricane season produced 30 named systems, far surpassing the usual 12-storm annual average. Having an understanding of the prevailing weather conditions helps mitigate this risk, and plan for the future.
Water management plays an important role in sustainable agriculture. Flooded rice systems emit substantial amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. Having an understanding of rainfall patterns allows farmers to manage alternate wetting and drying cycles, as well as implementing effective irrigation systems that reduce the energy required for pumping, thereby reducing Co2 emissions. Where growing city populations are situated close to agricultural land, the resulting increased water demand can be balanced against the crop requirements, and the projected rainfall levels for the area.
Unexpected high temperatures can also lead to a combination of lower crop yields and higher levels of pests on the farmland. An estimated 40% of the world’s food supply is lost to pests. Climate smart agriculture pest management is a multi-level approach that uses natural and sustainable methods for pest control.
In November 2020, the UK government announced plans to create a sustainable system of agriculture that will enable farmers to produce healthy food sustainably, without the need for further subsidy from 2028. The plan also included requirements to improve animal welfare, protect and improve the environment, and reduce carbon emissions.
The Farming Investment Fund will support innovation and productivity, offering grants for equipment, technology and infrastructure for the future. In addition, the Sustainable Farming Incentive will support farmers who proactively embark on farm husbandry that deliver environmental benefits, such as actions to improve soil health, hedgerows and natural pest management.
A three-year trial has started involving 5,500 UK farmers that will create a workable blueprint that can be applied nationally. This trial will ensure that the new scheme will deliver achievable benefits to farmers and land managers, as well as creating greener, cleaner landscapes, reversing the decline of some of the nations most cherished and unique species.
There is no doubt that there is a need for agriculture to adapt to our changing climate as much as our power generation and transportation. And as with the power industry, the solutions will vary depending on location, environment and weather conditions. Having a deep understanding of the local climate, including detailed and accurate historical information is becoming increasingly important, not just financially, but to our sustainable future.
We will be looking at the various areas of sustainability and our environment, new technologies, global government and company initiatives, and the way we are adapting to our climate in a new series of articles.
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