Agroecology to fight climate change

Agroecology is considered a traditional agricultural technique, but it has only gained in popularity in recent years in Europe. France has decided to become the leader of this field by promoting the technique and by implementing it in an experimental network of farms. This technique could be the one needed to make the agricultural system more climate resilient across the world, thus allowing humanity to combat climate change.

What is agroecology?

Agroecology is defined as:

the study of the role of agriculture in the world

However, scholars have pointed out that the definition fluctuates. It is considered a movement, a science or a practice in different parts of the world (Wezel et al. 2009). So, when talking about this notion, one can easily get confused.

In Brazil, agroecology is a movement that emerged in the 1970s to fight against the dependence of farmers on technologies such as GMOs and chemical fertilisers (Wezel et al. 2009).

In Germany, agroecology is a science that is applied on different scales (from the field to the landscape). It analyses ecological and biological processes on a site and then attempts to make use of those processes for the production of food.  Managing the ecosystem in this way allows for agriculture that does not rely on any chemical input (Wezel et al. 2009).

In France, agroecology is viewed as a practice that integrates ecological aspects into agriculture and focusses on the field level. It also has a social dimension, as it aims to create a network of farmers that can share their experience (Wezel et al. 2009).

What is happening in France?

In 2008, the French minister of agriculture launched a project that aims at promoting agroecology. One of its main goals is to reduce the pesticide use by 50% by 2018. This plan was revised in 2015 and the plan Ecophyto II emerged. This plan was implemented to reduce pesticide use by a quarter by 2020 and by half by 2025. The project has led to the development of a network of farms (DEPHY) using low amounts of pesticides and agroecological techniques (see Figure 1). In 2017, the network counted 3600 farms. Moreover, in 2014, the “law of the future for agriculture” (loi d’avenir pour l’agriculture) promoting ecological agriculture was established. This manifested the presence of agroecology in national law.

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Figure 1: Distribution of farms from the DEPHY network

How can agroceology help to fight climate change?

As we all know, the agricultural sector will be hit by climate change. In areas where the crops are not near their maximum temperature tolerance, the increase of CO2 will help the sector and higher yields are to be expected. This situation is, however, temporary. With increasing temperatures and more extreme weather events, floods and drought are to be expected. Therefore, the yield will most certainly decrease in the long run (Altieri et al. 2015).

  1. A resilient system

Conventional agriculture is the most prevalent type of agriculture and promotes techniques such as monocultures (IPES-Food 2016). Monocultures are a simplification of the ecosystems and scientists claim that homogenous ecosystems are vulnerable to pest invasions and outbreaks. The expansion of monocultures leads to larger vulnerability of the ecosystems. Thus, it is urgent to add genetic and ecological diversity to agricultural fields. In regions regularly hit by extreme weather events (e.g. Asia, Africa, South America), farmers maintain the biodiversity of the field in order to cope with such uncertain conditions. Greater biodiversity in an ecosystem allows for species richness, which in turn allows for a large set of ecosystem services to be performed (functional diversity). Additionally, it allows for a larger range in responses to stress from the species performing similar ecosystem functions (response diversity). The response and functional biodiversity are the key to the resiliency of an ecosystem. Each species performs slightly different functions that might be redundant when the weather is mild. However, in time of harsh weather conditions, these redundant functions are the key to the survival of the ecosystem: if one species does not survive, another will be there to perform a similar function. The agroecological techniques are not limited to the maintenance of field biodiversity but also include animal integration, soil and water management etc. (see Figure 2) (Altieri et al. 2015).

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Figure 2: How can agroecology cope with extreme climatic events (Altieri et al. 2015)

  1. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

In addition to offering resiliency to fields, agroecological practices offer the potential to decrease the GHG emission from the agricultural sector. The most obvious way is by not using pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. The emission associated with such chemicals mainly comes from their manufacture and will widely vary depending on the type of crop and the associated need per field. Although the net GHG emission from fertilizers varies with the farm location, the total GHG emission from fertilizers is quite significant. For example, in North America it accounts for as much as 33% of the total GHG emissions (Snyder et al. 2009).

Another way in which agroecology can reduce GHG emission is by practicing low or zero tillage, which reduces soil disturbances and thus maintains soil organic carbon in the soil pool (Pretty et al. 2006, Snyder et al. 2009). The most fruitful option in terms of GHG reduction is the zero-tillage practice (Pretty et al. 2006). The importance of these practices have been debated, and the consensus seems to be that they only have the potential to significantly reduce GHG in the long run, after more than 10 years of use (Six et al. 2004). Thus, it is important to start now!

In France

In France, the Ecophyto II project has had some difficulties: between 2008 and 2014, pesticide use was increasing across the country. After this period, however, the project has shown that it is possible to have the same yield with fewer pesticides. Between 2010 and 2015, the DEPHY farms have used 18% fewer pesticides on average. Although this greatly varies between the sectors (e.g. fruits, cereals, flowers), this is encouraging for other farmers that might want to follow the same path. Across the country, a decrease of 2.7% of the use of pesticides was observed in 2015, illustrating the large impact of the project. At the moment, it is unfortunately not possible to find data on the reduction of GHG achieved by the project.

In order to boost the pesticide reduction, the government has created a certification of pesticide economy (certifict d’économie de produits phytosanitaires (CEPP)). This project is based on the white certificate concept, which entails that certificates are handed out that confirm a certain level of reduction of energy consumption has been attained. The CEPP promotes the reduction of pesticides across the country.  And why not also across Europe in the long run?

Conclusion

The agroecological project in France is relying on innovative farmers that are not afraid of risk. Ecophyto II could transform agroecology from a pioneering project in Europe to a conventional way of producing food. Because France is the largest agricultural power in the European Union, the project has a large potential to attract other farmers to follow the same path. At the moment, agroecology is being developed around Europe, as the existence of the international NGO Agroecology Europe demonstrates. This NGO aims to “analyse, design, develop and promote the transition towards agroecology-based farming and food systems”. In short, there is hope for a healthier and more climate-resilient agriculture across the world…

 

References

Altieri M, Nicholls C, Henao A, Lana M. 2015. Agroecology and the design of climate change resilient farming systems. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 35(3). Doi: 10.1007/s13593-015-0285-2

IPES-Food. 2016. From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems – International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems.

Pretty J, Noble AD, Bossio D, Dixon J, Hine RE, Penning de Vries FWT, Morison JIL. 2006. Resource-Conserving Agriculture Increases Yields in Developing Countries. Environ. Sci.Technol. 40(4):1114–1119. Doi: 10.1021/es051670d

Six J, Ogle SM, Breidt FJ, Conant RT, Mosier AR, Paustian K. 2004. The potential to mitigate global warming with no-tillage management is only realized when practised in the long term. Global Change Biology 10(2):155–160. Doi: 10.1111/j.1529-8817.2003.00730.x

Snyder C, Bruulsema T, Jensen T, Fixen P. 2009. Review of greenhouse gas emissions from crop production systems and fertilizer management effects. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 133(3):247–266. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2009.04.021.

Wezel A, Bellon S, Doré T, Francis C, Vallod D, David C. 2009. Agroecology as a science, a movement and a practice. Sustainable Agriculture 2:27–43. Doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-0394-0_3.

 

 

On the psychology of climate change

When I read the news, I stumble upon at least one new article about how bad climate change is, how we’ve reached temperatures hotter than anytime previously available on record, how ice sheets are melting faster than ever and so on and so forth. I have stopped reading such articles. Why? Because my brain is human and is wired strongly at ignoring fearful or gruesome scenarios, such as the “doom and gloom” climate discourse which has been circulating around the media[1]. This is the same reason why people are not concerned about climate change until a devastating climate-related catastrophe occurs in the area where they live. Even if such an event occurs, climate action on the individual level remains minimal. Thus, below I will explore the psychological factors which have been obstructing action against climate change, as well as how a change in narratives and imagery can potentially help society “grow” to the point of dealing with anthropogenic climate change (ACC).

The common phrase “think global, act local” is often applied to climate change by assuming that global change starts with individual initiative. However, there are a few issues with this train of thought related to innate human psychology. Therefore, below I will distinguish between three main factors which influence an individual’s perception of climate change, namely a person’s beliefs, their understanding of the issue, and their perception of the psychological distance to ACC[2].

Understanding of climate change

ACC is a complex issue. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the issue, particularly when looking at the exact impacts it will have on the climate system, and thus, society[3]. For many people it is simply too difficult to understand, while many others have never had the opportunity to understand it (e.g. by being taught in school). This makes it difficult for scientists and environmental activists to urge the general public to act upon climate change. Of course, an individual will not be willing to make changes in their lifestyle (e.g. by flying less) in order to help “fighting” an abstract term created by scientists.  However, it is not impossible to break down the complexity of climate change when explaining to a person by using simplified narratives, as long as they are willing to listen. So, the lack of understanding of the problem is not the only obstacle in the path of dealing with ACC.

Personal beliefs

Think about going to a conference of flat-Earth believers in an attempt to convinceo them that the Earth is round. Even if you show them a photograph of our round Earth taken from space, most people will most likely remain convinced that the Earth is flat and you are crazy/unreasonable etc. Similarly, if you have a conversation with a strongly religious person, you will not be able to convince them that ACC is real and serious, due to an argument along the lines of “God created the Earth and we humans are incapable of changing it at such a large scale, even if we wanted to”, although science clearly points we are. Of course, I am not saying that it is impossible to be strongly religious and understand ACC, as people have controversial beliefs all of the time. What I am saying is that in the moment of acknowledging such a controversy, one belief will trump the other one. That is also why many climate skeptics are not actually against the science of climate change (this would make it relatively easy to debate them), but rather masters of distorting the science to fit their ideology. More often than not, this ideology is the belief in a liberal market system, unregulated by governments to a large extent[4].

However, a large portion of the population does not have strong beliefs which directly go against the science of climate change. There are also people who understand the issue at hand, however still do not act upon it. This brings me to the next point.

Perceived psychological distance         

  For those who acknowledge ACC, a large barrier to acting upon it (by changing lifestyles, urging policymakers etc.) is psychological distance, which can be separated into spatial and temporal[5]. Temporal distance is related to the time lag between the causes of ACC (GHG emissions) and the consequences (impacts on society). Temporal distance is connected strongly to an individual’s sense of intergenerational justice. Of course, people may want future generations to be able to live a life as good as ours. However, it is also difficult psychologically, but also economically due to discount rating, to act in the present when the benefits are thought to be reaped only reaped in the future.

Related image

Spatial distance, on the other hand, is related to the fact that many of the impacts of ACC will be felt in places which have caused the least of the problem and have the smallest capacity to solve it (e.g. least developed countries and small island states), which makes the consequences of ACC less relatable for citizens of an industrial country. Because the impacts of ACC will be felt disproportionately, a strong sense of intragenerational justice is required for people in the global North to act upon the issue.

Switching narratives

As was shown above, there are three main barriers to individual action against climate change. While the understanding of ACC is a necessary step to action, by itself it is not enough. Changing an individual’s beliefs is difficult, as they are deeply engrained in peoples’ identity. Therefore, reducing the psychological distance of a person may be the key to changing motivations for action. Changing peoples’ ideas on intragenerational justice are difficult as humans have a deeply wired sense of short-term thinking. Thus, it may be easier to reduce the spatial distance by changing climate narratives, related in particular to the causes of ACC and possibilities for action.

Until recently there has been a focus on top-down approaches to deal with climate change, as well as an emphasis on the importance of individual action. The former increases the psychological action gap (aka the gap between behavior and beliefs) by leaving the responsibility to states. However, the latter often results in free riding, as there are so many others not taking up this action that it “does not matter” if one individual will make a change or not. An alternative to the current narratives could be community-based programs which are at a large enough scale for the participants to feel like they are making a difference, yet on a small enough scale to keep the spatial distance relatively small.

communitygarden2-1000

Apart from increasing the psychological incentives to participate in climate action, community-based projects have other benefits, such as a pooling of resources which can then be distributed among the group (e.g. by buying a wind turbine collectively, the gathering of produce from community-based urban gardens), health benefits (by reducing air pollution from cars through carpooling) and feelings of belonging through group identity. Additionally, community-based projects can push local governments into more stringent climate policies, which can then have a domino effect onto larger scales of governance.

Thus, the climate change narrative should move away from “doom and gloom” scenarios to conversations of a “climate of change”, by empowering individual action through community-based initiatives which then share the responsibility and benefits of climate action through reducing the spatial distance to climate change without the need for dramatic devastating events as triggers.

 

References

[1] Sophie Nicholson-cole, ‘“ Fear Won ’ T Do It ” Visual and Iconic Representations’, Science Communication, 30.3 (2009), 355–79 <https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547008329201&gt;.

[2] Ajay S Singh and others, ‘In Fluence on Support for Adaptation Policy’, Environmental Science and Policy, 73.September 2016 (2017), 93–99 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2017.04.011&gt;.

[3] Howard Kunreuther and others, ‘Integrated Risk and Uncertainty Assessment of Climate Change Response Policies’, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, Contribution of Working Group III to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, 2014, 151–206 <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415416.008&gt;.

[4] Paul Matthews, ‘Why Are People Skeptical about Climate Change? Some Insights from Blog Comments’, Environmental Communication, 9.2 (2015), 153–68 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17524032.2014.999694&gt;.

[5] Rachel I Mcdonald, Hui Yi, and Ben R Newell, ‘Personal Experience and the “ Psychological Distance ” of Climate Change : An Integrative Review’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 44 (2015), 109–18 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.10.003&gt;.