Farm and Food Session 7

This session was a panel on Climate Change and Agriculture. The panel included:

Malcom Beck, author and founder of Garden-ville
Leighton Steward, author of Fire, Ice and Paradise
Andy Wilson from Public Citizen

Another good session on a very controversial topic. Malcom Beck, the king of compost, may be my new hero. I’m becoming somewhat obsessed with compost, as you can tell. He pointed out that carbon is one of the important things that plants need. The difference between organic fertilizers and conventional is the higher carbon content in organic fertilizers. Leighton Steward in his presentation said that CO2 is not a pollutant. I agree that it is important to recognize the role that CO2 naturally plays in the ecosystem. The goal certainly should not be to get rid of CO2. The question is the role of CO2 in the ecosystem, how much is acceptable in the atmosphere and where this CO2 might be coming from.

Leighton Steward had an excellent presentation with lots of colorful graphs and statistics. His basic thesis is one you may have heard before, that CO2 is a lagging indicator. CO2 levels rise only after temperatures rise and sometimes hundreds of years later. The indicator that he says does track with the changes in temperature is solar radiation.

Andy Wilson from Public Citizen did respond that there was significant debate in the scientific community on this issue. He also pointed out that the majority of climatologists working on climate change that were published have reached consensus about human activity as a cause of climate change. The majority of his time was spent on impending legislation and changes regulating CO2 emissions and the impact of things like cap and trade on both agribusiness and small sustainable farmers.

Here are some of my overall thoughts on a very complicated topic.

I’ll be honest, I generally stay out of the debate on climate change because I don’t base what I believe we should be doing on whether or not climate change is anthropogenic (caused by human activity). I know that there is another side to the debate that would have rebuttals for Leighton Steward’s claims. It’s a good debate when it is based more on science. Unfortunately it seems too often to devolve into politics on both sides. One side says the IPCC scientists are not real scientists, but politically motivated and manipulated. The other side makes the same claim about some of the scientists who discount human activity as a cause of climate change. If it’s possible to keep the debate scientific it’s a good conversation. At this point it seems impossible to keep politics out of the conversation.

I also feel manipulated anytime someone throws too many statistics, charts and graphs at me. Data is never objective. First of all the collection of the data always happens by human beings who use a process to decided what’s important and what’s not. That is the way it has to be, but is important to recognize that it is the case. After the data is gathered selectively it has to also be interpreted. What does this collection of numbers mean? Time and again you see different people look at the same set of data and make wildly different conclusions depending on their assumptions or interpretation of what the data says. So, someone’s charts, graphs and stats sometimes tells me more about their assumptions than any objective facts.

I do agree that CO2 is not a pollutant. However, doesn’t it matter what kind of CO2 or where it comes from? Isn’t there a difference between the CO2 that mammals exhale and the CO2 coming from factories, cars, etc.? I would be interested to hear more about comparing CO2 from different sources and used in different ways. My hunch is that the concentration of CO2 in factory farms, factories and urban centers would be different than the CO2 occurring naturally in the ecosystem.

At one point Mr. Wilson said that the goal was for sustainable agriculture to compete with industrial agriculture and that cap and trade (if done right) has the potential to do that. Is that the goal of sustainable agriculture? What would we sacrifice to “compete” with Big Ag? It seems counterproductive to me for that to be the goal. Part of the reason we have industrial agriculture is because the Secretary of Agriculture in the 70s said “Get big or get out!” What happens if we say the same to small-scale sustainable farms?

One of my favorite statistics was that Texas is #7 in the world in greenhouse gas emissions… in the WORLD! That’s just crazy!

Thoughts?

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