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Daily News Blog

29
Oct

Climate Crisis, Soil, Pesticides, Fertilizers: Red alert! This is Not a Drill!

(Beyond Pesticides, October 29, 2021) As more than 200 of the world’s countries convene, starting October 31 in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), it is important to sound the alarm unequivocally. We are in a climate emergency. This reality was confirmed, yet again, by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) August 2021 release of part of its sixth report, from Working Group I, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. The other parts of the report, to be issued over the next few months, are new assessments from Working Group II on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation, and from Working Group III on mitigation/averting further climate change. Below we address the urgent need to eliminate petroleum (fossil fuel)-based pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture and land management (parks, playing fields, rights-of-way, and open space) and put in place an urgent and strategic transition to organic practices without being distracted and diverted by claims of “regenerative” practices that do not meet the crisis in a meaningful way.

Headline takeaways from this first report are that, failing immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions:

  • the planet’s climate will likely blow by the much-vaunted 1.5°C threshold (average global temperature increase over the pre-industrial average) by 2040
  • impacts of the heating atmosphere and oceans will heighten significantly, including more-intensified and/or more-frequent heat waves, droughts, storms with massive rainfall, flooding, and wildfires (all of which cause additional downstream health, environmental, property, and commerce disruption, dislocation, and destruction)
  • the possibilities of intensified climate forcings and thresholds/tipping points being breached are rising significantly

The task for Working Group I was to assess “new scientific evidence relevant for a world whose climate system is rapidly changing, overwhelmingly due to human influence. The five IPCC assessment cycles since 1990 have comprehensively and consistently laid out the rapidly accumulating evidence of a changing climate system, with the Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 being the first to conclude that warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Sustained changes have been documented in all major elements of the climate system: the atmosphere, land, cryosphere, biosphere and ocean. Multiple lines of evidence indicate the recent large-scale climatic changes are unprecedented in a multi-millennial context, and that they represent a millennial-scale commitment for the slow-responding elements of the climate system, resulting in continued worldwide loss of ice, increase in ocean heat content, sea level rise and deep ocean acidification.” (See page 54 of the Physical Science Basis report; for details on the changes since the fifth IPCC report, see page 51).

For readers who may look at the report: it has adopted an “architecture” that includes several average surface temperature scenarios (based on the nexus of multiple influences), from low to very high emissions resulting in global average temperature increases of 1.9°C, 2.6°C, 4.5°C, 7.0°C, and 8.5°C. It also attaches to any projections and assumptions it includes in its analysis the attendant degree of confidence with which it states them (e.g., low, medium, or high). Any conclusions or analytical forecasts the reports makes exist within the contexts of these considerations. An example from the report: “This Report reaffirms with high confidence the . . . finding that there is a near-linear relationship between cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions and the global warming they cause.”

All of the work done by Beyond Pesticides and others — on the importance of moving agriculture and land management systems away from conventional, chemical-intensive approaches (via synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) and to organic practices — happens within the meta-context of the climate emergency, and is not unrelated. A 2019 IPCC report on climate and food security identifies that the food system, which includes conventional agriculture dominantly, is responsible for 25–30% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide. Multiple strands of Beyond Pesticides’ work converge in the climate issue: the climate, air quality, health, and soil impacts of synthetic fertilizers; declining soil health, caused by conventional growing practices that degrade soil’s ability to drawn down and hold carbon; collapsing biodiversity; and emissions, water, air, and ecosystem impacts of large livestock operations, among others.

Agricultural emissions come from multiple sources, as reported by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP): crop and livestock activity; food processing, transportation, and retail operations; and supply chain activities, such as the manufacture of pesticides, fertilizers, and fuels. Agricultural emissions alone increased by 10% from 1990 to 2019, with this breakdown: CO2 emissions rose by 16.2%, methane by 14.4%, and nitrous oxide by 7.3%. Further, says IATP, much of agricultural GHG emissions is “linked to industrial systems of crop production and the rise of factory farm systems of animal production.” Ben Lilliston, writing for IATP and using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 2017, found that the top three agricultural contributors to GHG emissions were soil management, enteric fermentation, and manure management.

Factory farms and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are virtually always conventionally operated. They use massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on silage crops, generally treat animals poorly, are a source of development of antibiotic resistance, and generate animal waste and “enteric fermentation” (which produces methane) on a huge scale. These operations often use enormous lagoons to “store” animal waste; there, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere. Management of animal waste at CAFOs contributes mightily to GHG emissions, environmental degradation, and human health issues.

The IPCC 2021 report notes an alarming metric on methane, finding “a resumption of atmospheric methane concentration growth since 2007. . . . faster growth over 2014–2019 . . . and growth since 2007 . . . largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.” Methane (CH4) is a potent GHG with 80–85 times the planet-heating impact of carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.

The Environmental Defense Fund (and many others) have recognized that “at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions. One of the largest methane sources is the oil and gas industry.” It is these industries that provide the petrochemical feedstocks for the production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As the role of this sector in the climate emergency has become increasingly recognized over the past decade-plus, these industries have come to see fertilizer, pesticide, and plastics production as important markets for its products.

The use of synthetic fertilizers is a particular and noxious contributor to the rising planetary temperature. This happens largely through these products’ emissions of nitrous oxide, or NOx — another potent greenhouse gas that also pollutes the air and feeds the development of ozone. NOx is roughly 300 times as potent in trapping heat as CO2. (In addition, runoff of high-nitrogen, synthetic fertilizers contaminates water bodies and contributes to eutrophication.) Nitrous oxide levels have increased, compared to pre-industrial levels, by 20% from all sources. Earlier in 2021, Beyond Pesticides asserted, “The excess nitrogen in these fertilizers is . . . driving global nitrous oxide emissions dangerously high, exacerbating the climate crisis.”

Many organic agricultural and land management practices, on the other hand, do not exacerbate emissions and related problems, but actually mitigate them. Under organic management, healthy soil can absorb and store 1,000 pounds of carbon per acre foot of soil annually. This translates to about 3,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre drawn down from the air and sequestered into organic matter in soil. (It is noteworthy that use of synthetic fertilizers actually compromises the carbon-capture ability of some kinds of terrain, such as salt marshes.) A fact often overlooked by policy makers in generating climate strategies is that carbon-sequestering soil practices are federally mandated in certified organic agriculture.

In addition, the healthy soils nurtured by organic practices make landscapes and crops more resilient, buffering them from some impacts of the warming climate, such as flooding and drought, and supporting healthier ecosystems in both the soil and its surrounds. The California Certified Organic Farmers Foundation’s policy report details why and how organic agriculture is key to tackling the climate crisis, and focuses on the importance of organic integrity to ensure that toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have no part to play in the future of agriculture.

Organic regenerative practices that support soil health (and carbon capacity) include use of cover crops and compost; reduced tillage of the soil; interplanting, crop rotation, and avoidance of monocropping large parcels; shifting some production to perennial crops; and others. Please note, in that last sentence, the use of “organic regenerative.” This is very intentional, and points to an issue that Beyond Pesticides has covered and on which it continues to educate and advocate. “Regenerative” agriculture that is not organic is not a meaningful step forward, and has become a red herring of sorts.

“Regenerative” is a term that has been sometimes sloppily, and sometimes intentionally, tossed around without benefit of clear definition or any regulation. In the Spring of 2021 Beyond Pesticides wrote, “‘Regenerative’ agriculture is widely considered to be a solution for reducing or even reversing [climate] impacts. Unfortunately, a movement by promoters of chemical-intensive agriculture has fooled some environmentalists into supporting toxic ‘regenerative’ agriculture. The so-called ‘regenerative agriculture’ promoted by these groups ignores the direct climate impacts of nitrogen fertilizers, the damage to soil health caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the fact that pesticide and fertilizer manufacturing is dependent on fossil fuels — as key ingredients [not only for these products, but] as well, for the heat and energy driving chemical reactions. It is important to see through this deception.”

Two examples of industry’s push on “regenerative” agriculture: (1) the Soil Health Institute’s launch of the U.S. Regenerative Cotton Fund, “an initiative to draw down 1 million metric tons of CO2e from the atmosphere by 2026 through increased adoption of regenerative soil health practices by cotton producers,” and (2) General Mills’s 2019 announcement of a commitment to convert one million acres of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030.

The “no till” strategy started as an approach to limiting soil erosion, and can be, within organic management, a useful strategy to protect soil structure and microorganisms. However, its promotion in some quarters has been “code” for reducing tillage and using chemical herbicides. Indeed, a recent study found that “While no-till agriculture can conserve soil and energy, it relies primarily on herbicides for weed control and to terminate cover crops and perennial crops. . . . When farmers are no longer using tillage to disrupt weed growth, they typically use more herbicides to control weeds.”

Regenerative agriculture that is not also organic — the National Organic Standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers — is not a meaningful advance on climate or other environmental concerns. In February 2021, Beyond Pesticides wrote, “As aptly stated by Jeff Moyer of the Rodale Institute, ‘We believe that in order to be regenerative, you have to start by being organic. It’s a little disingenuous to say you can regenerate soil health and sequester carbon and still use nitrogen fertilizers and synthetic pesticides. What you’re really saying is equivalent to saying, “I want to be healthy as a person, but I still want to smoke cigarettes.”’” Beyond Pesticides has repeatedly called out the importance of organic regenerative approaches; see its coverage of the 2021 Rockefeller Foundation report on the true cost of food, and its reporting on unintended consequences of “no till” in Vermont.

A high-level example of well-intentioned policy that lacks holistic awareness is a feature of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, an international initiative recognized by the Paris Climate Accord. As reported by Californians for Pesticide Reform, “Countries around the world are now recognizing the unique role that agriculture can play in sequestering carbon. Nearly the entire European Union joined a host of nations in signing onto the international initiative 4 per 1000. . . . The initiative recognizes that a 4% annual growth rate of soil carbon stock would make it possible to stop the present increase in atmospheric CO2. Countries are called on to do this by scaling up regenerative farming, grazing and land-use practices with a focus on soil health.”

Another example is the carbon market approach embodied in President Biden’s Climate 21 Project, according to Beyond Pesticides, which wrote that it does not “adequately and comprehensively respond to the current and looming interconnected threats to public health and the environment. The focus on carbon to the exclusion of a holistic approach that addresses complex, life-supporting, biological communities allows the continuation of disproportionate hazards to people of color and communities living adjacent to toxic sites. The mechanisms of carbon trading or the purchasing of carbon offsets under consideration do not establish an end date for admittedly unacceptable materials and practices, nor do they ensure a transition to life-sustaining practices.”

A final, egregious example from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s current push for a “market-oriented, incentive-based, voluntary system” to address climate and other issues in agriculture. Anyone familiar with industrial agriculture will recognize that language as promotion of chemical-intensive agriculture that focuses far more on profit and production than on precaution or the climate emergency. Secretary Vilsack recently touted his “Coalition for Productivity Growth” as a response to the European Union’s “Farm to Fork” initiative that forwards organic agriculture for multiple reasons, including addressing the climate crisis. Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman commented, “It is fine to create a structure for communication and coordination, but it is unacceptable to trash an international effort to transition to organic.” By contrast, a co-author of a 2020 study on agriculture’s NOx contributions to accelerating climate change, wrote, “Europe is the only region in the world that has successfully reduced nitrous oxide emissions over the past two decades.”

Industry, policy makers, and even some in the advocacy world continue to approach the climate crisis as if it were not the most urgent and existential issue humans face, and as if there is, somehow, plenty of time to solve it. There is not! As the IPCC report all but says outright, humanity is on the precipice of climate chaos. Though the climate scientists who worked on this report do not say so in so many words (such messages will likely arrive with the reports from Working Groups II and III), the bottom line is clear. Humans have nearly run out of time to tackle this emergency with the boldness required to preserve a climate close to that to which all life is adapted. Even a 2°C increase in average global temperature — to which we are easily headed, and beyond — would have massive repercussions for Earth’s natural and human systems.

Earlier in 2021 Beyond Pesticides wrote — and it is truer than ever — that the climate emergency and the related network of environmental and health issues are “existential crises that threaten life [that,] to be successfully thwarted, require a meaningful holistic strategy that commits our nation to ending our fossil fuel-based economy and use of petroleum-based materials that release harmful levels of carbon and noxious gases (including greenhouse gases/GHG) into the environment. Just as there are proposals to end production of the combustion engine and move to electric vehicles, we must demand that agriculture — across the board and on an expedited five-year schedule — shift to organic practices, whose standards are already codified in federal law. Organic production and handling practices have a proven, commercially viable track record, and both sequester carbon and eliminate petroleum-based pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. And importantly, the data show that this sector of agriculture is now operating without sacrificing productivity or profitability. The only problem: the vested economic interests in the petroleum and chemical industry are holding on to the status quo.”

Among the prefatory efforts leading to COP26 is a voluntary one led by the U.S. and the UAE (United Arab Emirates); more than 30 countries have joined the effort, as have the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Operating under the moniker “Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM),” the initiative’s goal is “to catalyze greater investments in climate-smart agriculture and global food systems innovation to enhance resilience in the often-overlooked agricultural sector to climate change impacts and create co-benefits of climate action.”

As countries meet in Glasgow, they will wrestle with all manner of complex scientific, political, and economic challenges in trying to hammer out agreements that are bold enough and rapid enough to meet the scale and scope of the climate emergency. According to Beyond Pesticides, incremental, narrow, and/or glacially paced approaches will not do. Leaders must insist on ambitious and binding emissions targets and timelines, and must plan and deploy, as part of the massive climate work ahead, the transition to organic systems, beginning immediately.

Source: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Report.pdf

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

 

 

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