When I have trouble growing something, I ask my grandmother. Whether it’s getting rid of mold on squash plants or keeping beetles from attacking my cucumber plants, she knows what to do.
Most importantly, she knows how to grow without chemicals. My grandmother is a walking encyclopedia of traditional farming practices, methods of growing food that farmers used before they turned to pesticides to kill weeds and giant tractors to plow the fields. She taught me, for example, how to handle and care for Holstein and Jersey cattle on our dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin.
This knowledge is invaluable, not only for me, but also for providing a more sustainable model for the agricultural industry. Lessons from the past can help smallholder farmers cope with climate change by keeping carbon in the soil and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Agriculture, from the application of synthetic fertilizers to animal production, was responsible for 11% of GHG emissions in the United States in 2020, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers estimate that about a third of global GHG emissions come from the food system as a whole, including how land is prepared for agriculture, as well as how food is processed and transported.
We know this has devastating effects: the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as evidenced by the California wildfires and Kentucky floods, are caused by the GHG emissions we release into the atmosphere. using fossil fuels.
That’s what makes the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) so promising, not least because of the $19.5 billion it earmarks for conservation practices. The task now is to ensure that the resources of the IRA reach those who will substantially tackle our climate crisis instead of making it worse.
Some worrying signs have already appeared. For example, while “distressed farmers” are targeted in the legislation, those who are eligible only include people who have fallen behind in repaying U.S. Department of Agriculture loans or deferred repayment of their loans during the pandemic. Currently, that figure is just over 24,500 farm families.
Additionally, the IRA does not address the history of racism in US farm policy, which the Biden administration’s US bailout had attempted by providing resources to alleviate debts for farmers of color. This is linked to another issue: will the resources devoted to conservation in the IRA contribute to the consolidation of holdings? Specifically, whether the resources will fund the expansion of already large-scale operations.
Of particular concern is the approximately $8.5 billion spent on the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). As noted by the National Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture, more than 20% of EQIP funding in 2019 and 2020 went to waste management projects for large-scale contained animal feeding operations, as well than to irrigation practices that overuse water.
This includes the installation of manure digesters on dairy and pig farms, which generate energy in the form of biogas. Seeing biogas production as a renewable energy source and an appropriate way to deal with climate change subsidizes the expansion of already large-scale operations.
Meanwhile, funding over-consumption of water is worsening droughts and providing no incentive for large-scale operations to improve their use of this increasingly scarce resource. Instead, we need to reorient how we grow our food.
Encouraging agroecology is one way. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, these practices promote genetic and species diversity, knowledge sharing among producers, and transparent and accountable governance of the food system. Some universities and advocacy groups are working with farmers to turn these ideas into reality.
My grandmother doesn’t call what she does agroecology, but she might. Fortunately, she has a good memory and is ready to share. To address climate change, we should look to her knowledge, and what others like her know, and not to initiatives that benefit industrial agriculture more than the Earth.
Anthony Pahnke is vice president of Family Farm Defenders and associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. This column was produced by Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.