Carbon, economics, food security and climate change

Between the years of 2006 to 2012 there was a massive drought in Syria. Around 1.6 million farmers and rural inhabitants migrated towards the cities. Previous to this, nearly 1.5 million people had migrated, displaced from Iraq during the earlier civil war and the Gulf wars.  These factors, along with others, created food insecurity.  The lack of the government's response to these challenges, along with ballooning populations and unemployment, led to a collapse in agricultural production and the Arab spring.

Now add ISIS to the mix. They strategically control water – and oil -- for these areas and are involved in a devastating civil war. That’s how we arrive at the end of 2015, with all the inherent complexities of displaced Syrians on the move. Their plight is heightened with media coverage of the recent attacks in Paris, France. The “City of Light” is shining light on these historic events and the contributors to them.

History shows us that people are generally resilient and resist moving far from the environment in which they grew up.  It is usually a combination of war and extreme hunger that create mass migrations of people. Many in the climate change circles bring attention to the Syrian drought. There is a general consensus that climate change and the warming of the earth are one of the catalysts for this humanitarian crisis. 

However, is it our use of fossil fuels that has really put our world into a potentially catastrophic climate that will be the end of our species?  Is a zero carbon economy going to influence that much change in our temperatures, which may divert these perceived worst-case scenarios from taking place?

About five years ago I read a book called Superfreakonomics. I highly recommend the read. The following paragraph borrows from that book.

At the turn of the 20th century there was one horse for every 17 people in New York City. The city was covered with horse manure and was at the point of where they couldn't live with horses and the smell, disease, and the methane gas (a powerful greenhouse gas) caused by horse transportation, nor could they function without the horses.  Then out of innovation, not government policy, electric street cars and automobiles were invented and they were cleaner to run and far more efficient; they were considered an environmental saviour.

Fast forward to all the cars and coal-burning power plants which have now seemed to warm the planet.  Climate change debate is not something new created by Al Gore and his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. In the mid 1970s, there were articles in Newsweek and New York Times, to name a couple, about how mankind is not prepared for this new pattern of change in the global temperature, that climate change would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale. However these scientists were publishing journals on global cooling, not global warming. The big fear was the collapse of the agricultural system. In Britain, these changes had already shortened the growing season by two weeks. A measurable natural event occurred in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo, located in the Philippines, erupted emitting more than 20 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. When combined with water vapour, it created a natural side effect that temporarily reversed the rise in global temperature and cooled the earth. A single volcanic eruption cooled the globe for two years.

When I grew up, I was taught that carbon was the building block of life and obviously it still is. Yet kids today would consider it a poison. Carbon is portrayed as a negative part of our environment. Let us understand that the carbon cycle is a natural process. Carbon gets released into the air through a multitude of activities: growing food, driving cars. Through photosynthesis, carbon is captured, helps grow plants, and is sequestered back into the soil through the roots. 

Carbon dioxide emissions also come from natural processes such as plant decay.  Swamps and forests have naturally suffocated themselves with their own emissions and have died off.  World ruminant animals are responsible for 50 per cent more greenhouse gases than our entire transportation sector. It has also been stated that human activity has led to only two per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. Current predictive climate models are limited in their scope. Forecasting models have limitations and are not accurate. Some models have shown that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen after the rise in temperature, not the other way around.

One could surmise that I'm trying to discount climate change or the fact that our planet has been continually warming.  I believe the data – that the earth overall has warmed, that a warming planet creates intense weather systems, that the polar vortex shifts have created great variations in our seasons, giving us false springs in January, droughts in California, snow in spring, extended warm falls, and excessive amounts of rain. There are many anomalies in our weather patterns. We cannot argue that. It is on record. However we must also understand the balance.

I recently attended a food security and climate change conference in Ottawa. Phrases such as transitional farming and sustainable nutrition are the new order of the day.

The stars have aligned for our provincial government’s mandate in regards to climate change. They now have a federal government that is ordering off the same menu. Whether we agree with the worst-case climate change models and fear for what the next generations will face, or we simply attribute all of this to natural variations in weather systems, we must still adapt to the changes.

The continued support for carbon taxing and/or cap and trade will affect our economy.  This will affect agriculture.  It is in our continued best interest to stay at the table and find the opportunities for Ontario horticulture. 

The government has promised that all the money raised in the cap and trade system will flow back to innovation to help meet the zero carbon targets. However, if the benefits of carbon sequestering in what's considered normal farming is not counted, then I would argue the normal practices of farming that release carbon into the environment should not be counted against farming as well.  Our modern horticultural system has become a very efficient way to produce sustainable affordable nutrition.  We need continued investment from our governments into the production side of horticulture.  If we want to see significant change in our emissions maybe we should impose a hefty health tax on junk food and encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption with a minimum half your plate every meal. 

Food security will be discussed in concert with developing global climate change policies. We need a national food policy developed with a continental food strategy. This must start at the production level. This must be done without adding any more burdens to our farms.           

Farmers must be recognized for the efficient way in which they produce sustainable nutrition. We must continue to support soil health as the essential component for the natural carbon cycle.

This brings us back to Paris, where the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference is being held from Nov. 30th to Dec. 11th. Our government will be well represented and listened to. They will bring aggressive targets that must be balanced with economics and global competitiveness.

Even the most well-meaning urban environmentalist or climate change promoters are not ready to give up their luxuries; They ride a bike 15 km a day to work and discuss agriculture while sipping on a local Cabernet as they trade conversation on the local broccoli they had at dinner. But they would not engage in a mass migration from the concrete jungle, to buy an ox, horse, and cow and move to the countryside.  Just like New York City got themselves to a point where they couldn't continue to live with the horses and but couldn’t live without the horses.  An innovative economic decision created the change needed to move forward, one that cost less, not more.

In Ontario, the rising cost of energy, all in the name of a low-carbon economy, is challenging our competitiveness.  We are subject to the policies of the day and future generations are subjected to the unintended consequences they deliver. Change will only happen once we are given the proper incentive. Let the change be a thriving sustainable agricultural economy.

Publish date: 
Monday, February 1, 2016

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