clear-cutting of a forest in progress, tall trees being cleared

Climate Action, Agriculture and Behavior Change: The Urgency of Now

Miriam Aczel

The 26th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) summit is taking place now through November 12, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland, where over 20,000 global leaders, scientists, and activists have convened to work towards critical action on climate change.

Author, journalist, and professor Michael Pollan is perhaps best known for his 2006 book—The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals—in which he investigates the impacts of our food choices. His subsequent book, In Defense of Food, sums up his pragmatic advice for healthy, sustainable eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” 

In 2008 Pollan wrote a call to action in the New York Times magazine, urging bold climate action and emphasizing the important role of individual behavior change. Now, over a decade later, the need for our leaders and politicians to act is stronger than ever. 

Pollan quotes journalist Michael Specter on carbon footprints: ‘Personal choices, no matter how virtuous, cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.’ But Pollan also says that “laws and money cannot do enough, either.” He argues that we need to make widespread, comprehensive changes to how we live as the climate crisis is a “crisis of lifestyle—of character, even.” The crisis we face is the result of many small decisions we make—70 percent of our economy is composed of consumer spending!

In the piece, Pollan asks “why bother?”—the difficult question facing us individually and collectively, when the current climate crisis is so dire. He contends that if you “bother,” you will influence other people who, in turn, will influence others, setting in motion a positive chain reaction of changing behaviors, including the consumption of green products and technologies. Pollan gives the example of the rise in popularity of hybrid cars as a response to the need to reduce emissions. He explains that the increased awareness of climate impacts will perhaps lead to “new moral imperatives and new taboos” that will change behaviors such as “driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night.” 

Pollan’s simple and pragmatic solution is to urge people to grow their own gardens –“one of the most powerful things an individual can do”—not just to reduce individual carbon footprints, but to reduce the “sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.” He explains that many great things happen when planting a vegetable garden, both in terms of reducing carbon emissions and as a way to “grow the proverbial free lunch –CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious).”

Ultimately, Pollan concludes that the “single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.”

Regenerative agriculture

Several years after his call to action, Pollan co-authored a piece highlighting that the world leaders who gathered in Paris for the COP21 conference paid little attention to the crucial interlinkages between climate change and agriculture–a “huge mistake and a missed opportunity” as our current methods of farming are both unsustainable and a major contributor to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The large-scale industrialization of farming has enabled farmers to grow crops quickly, but at the same time, “wreaked havoc on the earth, water and atmosphere” through the increased use of chemical fertilizers and intensive plowing. Scientific studies find that agricultural soil has lost up to 70 percent of its carbon content, accelerating climate change. Industrial-scale farming has resulted in significant soil degradation, which is reducing society’s long-term ability to cultivate food. 

Water use is another critical issue. Agriculture accounts for nearly three-quarters of global water consumption, largely because degraded soil does not absorb water efficiently. Instead, water runs off the top of the soil with fertilizers and other damaging chemicals, flowing into waterways and potentially damaging ecosystems. 

Pollan argues that it is possible to restore carbon to the soil through regenerative agriculture—planting “cover crops” like beans or oats between rows of vegetables, rotating crops, plowing and tilling the soil, diversifying crops, and more, with the aim of enhancing the whole farm ecosystem. Not only do these and other practices keep carbon and nutrients like nitrogen in the soil, but also limit the need for synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. A soil sequestration study from the Ecological Society of America (PDF) shows that regenerative practices of crop rotation and cover cropping could help restore soil health globally and reduce the carbon emissions from farming. Additionally, regenerative farming would enhance land productivity by increasing the ability to absorb and retain water, which is critical in the face of climate change and water scarcity. These carbon-rich fields would also reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and lower farming costs. 

6 core principles of regenerative agriculture
Regenerative farming seeks to work with natural cycles to strengthen soil health, increase biodiversity, and sustain the agricultural ecosystem. Credit: General Mills

Curbing Deforestation

Six years after COP21, world leaders have pledged to end deforestation by 2030. The countries who have signed the pledge—including Brazil, Russia, China, Canada, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UK and the US—account for nearly 90 percent of global forests. The pledge includes nearly $19.2 billion in funding for the restoration of private and public lands, tackling wildfires, and supporting Indigenous communities. This promise to halt deforestation caused by global agricultural trade, including products such as palm oil and cocoa, presents a key opportunity to mitigate climate change and emissions from the global food sector; while it is a critical step, there have been unsuccessful efforts to protect global forests. For example, the United Nations Strategic Plan for Forests 2017–2030 committed to an “ambitious vision for global forests” that included six Global Forest Goals and 26 associated targets to be reached by 2030, as well as an aim to increase global forested area by three percent globally by 2030. However, the target goals were not legally binding. Similarly, the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) set voluntary, non-binding targets to end global deforestation by 2030. Neither agreement has led to significant progress—according to the NYDF Progress Assessment, we are not on track to stop deforestation by 2030. 

The need to meet current deforestation reduction targets is more urgent than ever. While there has been some progress—including commitments from multinational companies to “achieve deforestation-free supply chains” and governmental regulations that prioritize forest sustainability in commodity trade—there is a need for concerted action to restore forests and develop enduring climate and biodiversity solutions. 

Taking Action

To come back to Pollan’s initial question, there is an important need for individuals to “bother”—and a key role for individual behavior change to leverage the power of collective action. On one hand, COP26 calls attention to the need for coordinated global action on the climate crisis and emphasizes collaboration to promote sustainable farming, redefine water and land use, end deforestation, and more. But Pollan reminds us that we cannot leave the solutions to governments alone: we as individuals also have the responsibility to examine—and change—behaviors in our households and communities. 

More than 100 world leaders have pledged to end deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 summit. 

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Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak at the 2021 Virtual Behavior, Energy and Climate Change (BECC) conference, which runs from November 8-10! Register on the BECC website.

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