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Small Farmers Can Cool the World

By Stephen Leahy |

COPENHAGEN - Industrial agriculture may emit nearly half of climate-heating greenhouse gases, but that reality has gone unrecognized by negotiators at the climate treaty talks here, say farmers with La Via Campesina, an international movement of hundreds of millions of small-scale peasant farmers.[]

"Small-scale farmers use 80 percent less energy than large monocultures," said Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian farmer with Mouvement de Paysan, through a translator.

"Peasant farmers from La Via Campesina and others can help cool the planet," Jean-Baptiste told a press conference at the Klimaforum09, the alternative climate action talks being held here in Copenhagen Dec. 7-18.

Unlike the official talks, set in a remote location surrounded by police and razor wire, Klimaforum09 is being held in the city's community centre and is free and open to the public.

"System Change for Climate Change" - that's the phrase most often heard at the Klimaforum09 and in parts of Copenhagen.

La Via Campesina's claim that industrial agriculture is by far the biggest source of carbon emissions is based on a recent study that looked at all emissions from the global food system.

This includes oil-dependent industrial farming, together with the expansion of the meat industry, the destruction of world's savannahs and forests to grow agricultural commodities, the use of fossil fuel energy to transport and process food, and the extensive use of chemical fertilizers.

The study was conducted by GRAIN, an international non-governmental organization that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity to support local communities.

"These results are horrifying. So much carbon is lost from the soil using monoculture practices," said Camila Montecinos, the lead GRAIN researcher from Santiago, Chile.

The study looked at all the available scientific literature and worked with soil scientists to arrive at this "rough" but thorough estimate, Montecinos told TerraViva.

The study does not include methane emissions from animals and their manure because studies conflict and incorporating manure into the soil increases fertility and soil carbon, she explained.

Surprisingly, one-third of the emissions come from food processing and transport, although the former is responsible for most. The bulk of emissions come from land use changes - conversions of forest and grasslands - and from direct agricultural production like fuel use, fertilized and tillage.

Calculations in the report show that policies oriented towards agriculture in the hands of small farmers and focused on restoring soil fertility could, over the next 50 years, capture about 450 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than two-thirds of the current excess in the atmosphere.

"The evidence is irrefutable. If we can change the way we farm and the way we produce and distribute food, then we have a powerful solution for combating the climate crisis. There are no technical hurdles to achieving these results, it is only a matter of political will," said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN, in a release.

Governmental policies and trade agreements the world over support industrial agriculture production and the study shows this must change in order to stabilize the climate, Montecinos said. "No governments are talking about this," she noted.

Worse still, many of those policies are pushing small farmers off the land, the ones who are by far the most efficient in terms of carbon emissions and energy use, she said.

Ending such policies and giving the lands back to small farmers could result in major emission reductions on the order of 50 to 66 percent, said La Via Campesina in a news release.

"Such a transformation of world agriculture would not only greatly contribute to solving the climate crisis - it would also provide healthy food for all - as well as provide livelihoods to millions of women and men," the group said.

When asked what he would like to tell the negotiators at the official climate talks, Jean-Baptiste said: "We have to change the model of production and consumption, especially in the northern half of the world."

"Corporate control and concentration has not provided any solutions. Instead people suffering more than ever," Alicia Muñoz from Via Campesina in Chile told TerraViva. "The men standing up there [at the official negotiations] will never solve the problems of poverty and climate change."

"Women need to be involved and part of the solution," she stressed.


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