ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
Climate Change + Inappropriate Agricultural Practices = Environmental Disaster
Table of Comments
Summary Page 1
General Remarks Page 3
CARICOM Regional Food and Nutrition Security Policy Explained - some comments and clarifications Page 5
A critical examination of the Secretariat's suggested indicators of sustainability as applied to the RFSNP Page 7
Conventional agriculture is inappropriate for tropical-zone climatological and geophysical conditions Page 14
The Great Dust Bowl: America's worst environmental disaster - The result of inappropriate agricultural practices Page 18
The USDA's active promotion of alternative agricultural practices to mitigate the risk of future environmental disasters: Lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl Page 20
Would Caricom's Regional Food Security Policy pass FAO and IPCC climate change adaptation and mitigation "stress tests"? Page 25
The first part of the paper examines arguments put forward in the Caricom Secretariat's response to my posted critique of the RFSNP ("Ensuring Food Security; Mitigating Climate Change - Has Caricom Made the Right Policy Choices? - Part 1: Food Security.") concerning definitions (of alternative agriculture) and criteria of sustainability (environmental sustainability, economic viability, political and social acceptability, technological soundness), proposed by the Secretariat. The last of those criteria served as an introduction to the substantive part of the paper, beginning with my argument that "Conventional agriculture" is inappropriate for tropical-zone climatological and geophysical conditions.
The central feature of conventional agriculture - monoculture (the continuous cultivation of the same type of crop, in the same field, year after year) is particularly inappropriate for tropical conditions. It requires agricultural lands to be left without vegetative cover for the period between a harvest and the next planting. In that period, tropical soils have no protection against tropical windstorms and heavy tropical rainfall which can cause serious soil erosion. Because the topsoil contains microorganisms and nutrients that are essential for sustaining plant growth, such erosion can significantly reduce, or even destroy, the fertility and productivity of agricultural lands. In his book "On behalf of Africa, I accuse" (1986), Réne Dumont, the distinguished French agronomist, accused Europe of having destroyed Africa's agricultural fertility, during the period of colonial rule, by the inappropriate agricultural practices of colonial régimes.
Monocultures, require chemical fertilizer to compensate for the loss of fertility due to erosion, as well as pesticides to compensate for their greater vulnerability to pests and plant diseases. Temperate-zone lands are also affected by wind and water erosion, but to a lesser degree because of lower wind speeds and less heavy rains. Tropical and traditional (pre-20th century) temperate-zone agriculture systems developed agricultural practices such as, crop rotations, cover crops, intercropping, which protected the soil against wind and water erosion and greatly reduced pest activity, and substantially reduced or eliminated the need for fertilizer and pesticides.
The Great Dust Bowl Drought of the 1930s, which destroyed the fertility and productivity of agricultural lands in America's Mid-west, some of them permanently, is cited as an example of the environmental catastrophe that inappropirate agricultural practices can cause. Geophysical and climatological conditions in the Mid-west expose the region to severe wind storms. Mono-cultural cultivation, which left farmlands bare of vegetative cover between harvest and planting, was a dangerous practice in such conditions. A drought that lasted several years in the 1930s left Mid-west soils very dry and light. 850 million tons of soil were carried away by wind storms in 1935 alone. One wind storm that swept over Wichita, Kansas, carried off five million tons of soil. The destruction of the Mid-west's agricultural economy caused hundreds of thousands of farmers to abandon the region in search of work in western states. Two impressive youtubes on the Dust Bowl catastrophe, its causes and consequences are included.
The Federal government established a Soil Conservation Service (SCS), within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the stated objective of changing agricultural and land management practices in the Mid-west and elsewhere in the country. Demonstration farms were set up all over the country for the purpose of teaching American farmers conservation practices that protect the soil and preserve the fertility and productivity of farm lands. Virtually all of those practices are utilized in modern organic agriculture, as they were in traditional agriculture. The USDA did not close down the SCS after the fertility of Mid-West agricultural lands was restored. The Federal Department of Agriculture has continued, right up to the present time, to actively promote alternative (organic) agricultural practices, information on which it constantly updates for dissemination to the farming community. That important function is now performed by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) which has replaced the SCS. Farmers in California and other states have found that incorporating one or more standard alternative or organic practices in their conventional farming can provide several valuable benefits - increased crop yields, enhanced soil fertility and productivity, reduced pest activity, more soil moisture, among several others.
In almost every respect, the Caricom region is exposed to a broader range of serious environmental dangers, which present a much greater risk of environmental catastrophe, than the American Mid-west. Hurricane winds in the Caribbean often attain speeds twice the velocity of Mid-West winds. The frequency, intensity and destructive force of hurricanes and their associated effects - torrential rains, floods, landslides and mudslides - will necessarily increase with climate change, causing more deaths, greater destruction of food crops and increased loss of soil fertility, which would inevitably have a negative impact on the level of food production in the region. Yet, unlike the USDA, Caricom national and regional authorities have not taken similar action to promote alternative agricultural practices that would mitigate the intensity of floods, protect lands from soil erosion, thus preserving their fertility and productivity, and reduce the death toll and physical destruction they cause. The RFSNP mentions only one conservation practice - zero tillage, which is given zero importance and looks very much like window dressing.
FAO and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are, respectively, the acknowledged international authorities on food security and climate change.
Applying criteria established by FAO and the IPCC, the programme and policy measures in the RFSNP were submitted to climate change adaptation and mitigation "stress tests". The result of that exercise is unambiguous. The RFSNP failed both tests by a wide margin. The paper concluded with the suggestion that Caricom authorities should make use of a rubric in its regional programme to introduce a number of alternative agricultural practices, of proven effectiveness, which would protect the fertility (and productivity) of the region's agricultural lands and, at the same time, reduce the incidence, intensity and destructive force of floods, landslides and mudslides. The rubric consists of two lines (in the 29-page policy document) in the section headed, "FOOD STABILITY - Improve the food and nutrition security resilience of the region to natural and socio-economic shocks and climate change: "Retraining and retooling of farmers in appropriate production practices (e.g. conservation farming, zero tillage etc.) to adapt to the changing environment."
All the mitigation measures mentioned in the IPCC Report, all the agricultural practices proposed under FAO's "Conservation agriculture", and all "green, "evergreen", "organic", or "agroecological" practices identified by UNEP and the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change (CGIAR), could be subsumed under "conservation farming".
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