NEW ORLEANS — In the IFTNext session “Climate Action for a Secure Food System” at IFT19, held June 2-5 in New Orleans, three panelists — Michael Wall, director of farmer services, Georgia Organics; Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability, natural and organic, General Mills; and Logan Peterman, agriculture research and analytics manager, Organic Valley — answered these questions: How does climate change interact with our food systems? Why does that matter?
Moderator Jessica Shade, director of science programs at The Organic Center, said agriculture is not only majorly affected by climate change, but it is also a major contributor. She listed two ways in which farms are a part of the climate change problem — or could be a part of the solution, depending on how you look at it.
First, is the increase of greenhouse gas emissions, direct and indirect. Indirect emissions often come from fossil fuels for manufacturing farm inputs. When it comes to direct, burning fossil fuels and methane releases are a few examples.
Although animals produce methane, Mr. Peterman noted that consumers and companies must remember that they are critical to soil fertility. Manure helps produce food and is where people get some of their immunity and nutrition.
“We have to find a way to counterbalance the issue,” Mr. Peterman noted.
Some of these options are being researched and implemented, including using grass-fed production and bringing back ecosystems that have been replaced or destroyed.
The second way Ms. Shade said farmers are affecting climate change is carbon in soils.
“If we don’t manage soils well, that can deplete carbon released from the soil to the atmosphere,” she explained.
This can be mitigated through crop rotation, using manure or legumes as fertilizer and reducing synthetic inputs.
During a life cycle assessment, General Mills discovered that its area of agriculture has the biggest impact on climate change. Now it’s focusing on three issues: soil health, above-ground biodiversity and farmer economics resilience.
“A large part of what we’re talking about is very disconnected from our natural resources,” Ms. Sadowski said. “We’re taking a holistic approach and starting at the supply chain.”
This approach General Mills is taking is called “regenerative agriculture,” which seeks to protect and intentionally enhance natural resources and farming communities. Methods such as crop rotation, educating consumers and farmers as well as obtaining measurement data on farm sourcing are all being implemented.
The panelists in the session agreed that organic farming tactics can help reduce climate change and are methods that can be used broadly throughout agriculture.
Nonprofit company Georgia Organics not only provides farmers from Georgia with disaster relief and mental health support, but it also seeks to educate farmers about climate change and assists them with the move into the organic sphere — having helped transition 26 farms so far.
“Organic farmers will talk about climate change, but that may not be true with conventional farmers,” Mr. Wall said. “They often think organic is something the city folks want or just a passing trend.”
One of the biggest barriers to farmers moving organic, according to the panelists, is money. After all, farming is a business.
Mr. Peterman suggested that one simple solution is consumers purchasing organic.
“Farmers can and should be incentivized for these practices,” he said. “Dollars should come from the consumers. We all have a part to play.”
Part of Georgia Organics, General Mills and Organic Valley’s work is showing farmers that organic is profitable. The panelists discussed how building soil health allows farmers to be less dependent on costly input, which means a more sufficient business. Organic allows farmers access to new markets, reduces food safety risks with tracking and will lessen disasters related to climate change, they said.
But at the end of the day, seeing is believing, Ms. Sadowski said.
“Farmers are going to learn best from farmers,” she said. “So when you find pioneering farmers, other farmers will be looking too for success.”