Farming inflicts great damage on planet, Christian Aid says

New report calls for ‘transformation to agroecology’ ahead of UN summit

Despite industry claims chemical fertilisers and pesticides are essential to higher yields and food security, ‘the opposite is true’, a Christian Aid report states. Photograph: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

Despite industry claims chemical fertilisers and pesticides are essential to higher yields and food security, ‘the opposite is true’, a Christian Aid report states. Photograph: Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images

 

An increasingly intensive global food production system based on use of synthetic chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides “has driven up [carbon] emissions, degraded soils and is the main driver of biodiversity loss”, according to a Christian Aid report.

Released to coincide with the UN Food Systems Summit on Thursday – which is running in parallel with the UN General Assembly in New York – the report details damage that conventional farming throughout the world is doing to the climate and soil systems upon which humanity relies.

“Agriculture is also the most vulnerable sector to now unavoidably intensifying climate shocks and stresses,” the NGO warns.

“Both the [UN’s] ‘race to net zero’ and the ‘race to resilience’ cannot be delivered unless there is also a transformation to agroecology for the simple reason that it offers the greatest impact in delivering a triple win for climate change,” it concludes – in the form of reduced emissions, increased resilience and productivity and carbon absorbed from the atmosphere into soils and trees.

Despite industry claims that chemical fertilisers and pesticides are essential to higher yields and food security, “the opposite is true with agroecological approaches such as organic farming and agroforestry increasing productivity and resilience, reducing emissions and drawing carbon back into soils and trees more effectively than any alternative”, the report underlines.

Forest clearance

Emissions associated with farming are being compounded by intense cultivation of soils that release carbon into the atmosphere and the clearance of forests and the loss of their vital carbon absorbing capacity, it adds.

“Nitrate fertilisers are particularly damaging, releasing both methane and CO2 in their production, generating 1.4 per cent of global emissions. After they are applied to the soil, they are also the main source of nitrous oxide, which accounts for a further 6 per cent,” it concludes.

Some 17 per cent of nitrate fertiliser ends up in food. “The rest generates greenhouse gases, dangerous particulates and stratospheric ozone loss. It washes into groundwater from where it pollutes rivers and deoxygenates seas.”

The report highlights some 385 million cases of unintentional acute pesticide poisoning occurring annually; 11,000 of these resulting in death.

The global food system already produces enough food for 10 billion people, more than the expected population in 2050. “But it is so inefficient 30 per cent is lost or wasted through neglect of product storage or by households.” Up to 10 per cent of global emissions are associated with food that is never eaten.

The report suggests “widespread adoption of agroecology” would see huge benefits to soil health, water usage, climate change and increased yields and profit to farmers.

“A growing range of subsequent studies have shown productivity improvements of 5-12 per cent as farmers adopt more agroecological methods, and they recover faster after severe shocks, such as cyclones and droughts.”

Food insecurity

The UN insists the summit will “trigger the transformation of food systems” to meet global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality backed by pledges from countries – including Ireland. Its main aim is to deliver progress on all 17 of the UN sustainable development goals, it added.

In July, the UN World Food Programme said acute food insecurity rose by 74 per cent this year because of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

President Joe Biden told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that the United States would commit $10 billion toward ending hunger in his country and around the world.

Nearly one in three people did not have access to adequate food last year, he noted, while the US was committing to rally partners to address malnutrition.

“To that end, the United States is making a $10 billion commitment to end hunger and invest in food systems at home and abroad,” Mr Biden said.

A virtual Food is the Future event was staged in advance of the summit on Wednesday by young people from a coalition of organisations representing 70,000 people around the world.

“We need food systems transformation for a livable future. Current food production and consumption are jeopardising our futures when they could be the very basis of nourishment, justice and sustainability,” Lana Weidgenant of This is Zero Hour told the gathering.