The future of farming will revolve around climate change action

First published in The Farming Independent October 27th 2020

Michael Brady. Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork.

We are one generation away from catastrophic climate disaster – farmers need to be innovators and early adopters of climate action measures if agriculture is to survive and prosper

Farming is dominated by short-term thinking. Weather and price fluctuations are usually the most pressing day-to-day issues, but there is a longer-term picture for farmers to consider.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘A Life on our Planet’ narrated by the legendary BBC presenter David Attenborough. At 93 years of age, the broadcaster recounts his life, and the evolutionary history of life on Earth, he grieves the loss of wild places (the earths biodiversity) and offers a vision for the future. This vision is very relevant farmers all over the globe.

The explosion in world population from 2.3 billion people in 1937 to 7.8 billion in 2020 has caused monumental changes to the planet.

There have been 5 mass extinctions in the planet’s 4 billion-year history, this is where an event causes a mass extinction of species, which are then suddenly replaced by a few. The last time this happened was at the end of the dinosaur age where 75% of all species were wiped out, a huge part of evolution wiped out.

According to David Attenborough we are heading for the 6th mass extinction of species on the planet as a result of climate change.   

The last 10,000 years have been particularly stable, global temperature has not varied by more than 1Degree Celsius in the period. This stability facilitated good biodiversity and the entire living world settled into a gentle reliable rhythm of seasons.

The human race took full advantage of this stability in the seasons and invented farming.

The areas classified as wilderness on the planet were reclaimed and converted to farmland to feed the rapidly increasing population. The dominance of the human race and its ever-expanding numbers has destroyed this biodiversity at a meteoric speed. We, are presently on a path to consume the earth until we have it all used up.

He predicts that if we continue on this path of population increase, burning fossil fuels and reclaiming land, by 2100 the earth will be 4 Degrees Celsius warmer and large parts of the planet will be uninhabitable and millions will be rendered homeless. The 6th mass extinction of species is well underway and in just one life time, that of our children our ‘Garden of Eden’ that is planet earth, will be lost.  

Table 1: Evolution of Planet Earth 1937 – 2020

YearPopulation   Carbon in AtmosphereWilderness on the Planet  
19372.3 billion280 ppm66 %
19542.7 billion310 ppm64 %
19603.0 billion315 ppm62 %
19784.3 billion335 ppm55 %
19975.9 billion360 ppm46 %
20207.8 billion415 ppm35 %

Ref: Netflix, ‘A Life on our Planet’.

So, what can we do to arrest and reverse this catastrophic crisis we have commenced and how will it affect farming?

The answers proposed are really quite simple:

  1. Contain Human Population

It is projected there will be 11 billion people on the planet by 2100. Containing or reversing human population growth is clearly a priority, as without it all other measures are fruitless as it is the fundamental cause of the problem.

In developed 1st world economies people have less children, therefore if poorer countries become wealthier they will have less children thereby reducing population growth and containing the problem. This avoids the need to implement more radical policies like putting limits on the number of children per family. At some time in the future the human population will peak and the quicker this happens the better. Eliminating poverty will curtail human population growth, this is the first step in saving the planet. 

  • Use Renewable energy

The burning of fossil fuels is heating up the planet.

If we replace fossil fuel use with renewable energy such as solar, wind and wave energy it will eliminate the CO2 entering the atmosphere from oil, gas and coal. In the long term renewable energy will be more affordable, cities will be cleaner and quieter, and the best part is that it will never run out. Using 100% renewable energy is the second step to saving the planet.

  • Healthy Ocean

The ocean is a critical ally to reducing carbon in the atmosphere. There is a complex relationship between the ice caps, fish and ocean life, rainfall, weather patterns and the ocean. Creating, implementing and monitoring a strategic plan for the management of our oceans is the third step to saving the planet.

  • Land Management – Rewilding

The reclamation of vast tracts of land over the last 100 years has reduced biodiversity on the planet, this is contributing to climate change.  To restore stability on the planet we must re-examine land use and the way we farm. This will affect every farm and farm business on the planet.

It is easy for us to blame countries like Brazil for deforestation of the Amazon region and Indonesia for palm oil deforestation, as we in Europe we have long since cut down our trees and reclaimed the majority of land suitable for agriculture, the blame game will not solve the problem. The reality is, we all have to play our part to save the planet.

The Teagasc MACC Curve outlines the abatement potential for Irish Agriculture, it may seem insignificant in the global scale of the problem, but every county needs to do their best and our farmers need to be innovators and early adopters for our agriculture to survive and prosper into the future.     

The terminology of the future in farming will be rewilding land, soil regeneration, afforestation, agroforestry, nutrient management, low emission fertilisers, limiting livestock numbers and creating carbon plans to plot a route to Net Zero Carbon emissions for every business in the country. Land management is the fourth step to saving the planet.  

The game has already started for Irish farmers, EU CAP reform is just around the corner and it will take the game to the next level. The present generation of farmers will certainly survive this potential 6th mass extinction of species on planet earth, but we owe it to our children and to future generations to solve the problem while we can.