Soy beans being planted in a field on a farm in Balfour, South Africa, on Oct. 20, 2021. Regenerative agriculture is a simple idea, instead of using pesticides, irrigation systems, and heavy tilling machinery, cover crops are used during the off season to keep the moisture and nutrients in the soil and control weeds.
PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP— Getty Images
September 28, 2022 1:10 PM EDT

A biennial celebration of international small-scale farmers, breeders, fishers, and food producers just wrapped up in Turin, Italy. Convened by the Slow Food movement, one phrase in particular dominated the Terra Madre Salone del Gusto festival’s long roster of panel discussions and workshops: “Food is the cause of the environmental crisis, but it can also be the solution.”

In a year that has seen few places on earth untouched by the climate crisis, it was an apt starting point. Farmers from the U.S. to Japan, Australia, Uganda, Italy, and everywhere in between, talked about how drought, flood, fire, storms, heatwaves and plagues of pests had destroyed their livelihoods. Some swore they would persevere despite the challenges; others wondered if they could afford to start over—or even if they should.

Food production contributes approximately 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making farmers both contributors to, and victims of, climate change. But it doesn’t have to be that way, say proponents of Slow Food, a movement started in Italy 36 years ago that promotes “good, clean and fair food” along with a stronger connection between people and the food they eat. Adopting climate-smart farming practices, and taking a more flexible approach to what is farmed where, will make food production more resilient in the face of climate change. But even then, it may not be enough—absent severe reductions in fossil fuel emissions, some places will likely have to give up farming entirely in the near future.

Improving Resilience

Conventional agriculture seeks to maximize production via large scale farms that rely on monocrops fed by greenhouse gas-emitting fertilizers, protected by biodiversity-damaging pesticides and harvested by fossil fuel-spewing combines and tractors. Industrial farming may be able to produce food cheaply, but it comes with a great environmental cost, says Edward Mukiibi, Slow Food’s new president. The pursuit of profit above all else has resulted in soils so stripped of their nutrients that farmers have no choice but to add increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to maintain production in a downward spiral of additive addiction.

But by focusing on soil health—by letting fields lie fallow, rotating crops, planting hedgerows, or letting cattle churn up the earth and fertilize it with their droppings, among other practices—farmers can improve the quality of their crops, with the added benefit of increased biodiversity and carbon sequestration. That’s the way smallholders used to farm, back when crops were destined for the farmer’s kitchen as much as for the market. These days the practice is called agroecology or regenerative farming, but it’s what Slow Food has been advocating for decades.

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In addition, says Mukiibi, the movement’s promotion of heirloom seeds over commodity crops promotes biodiversity that serves as insurance against climate change. A harvest-time flood might wipe out a farmer’s entire monocrop as well as her yearly income, but if the farmer planted a diversity of seed types with different growth periods, she would likely be able to save a portion of her crops. Mukiibi, the son of a farmer and a trained agronomist, has seen this first hand in his native Uganda. “I’ve seen farmers lose everything. But I’ve also seen how biodiversity promotes resilience. And resilience is key for combating climate change.”

Climate ‘Whack-a-Mole’

But resilience is in increasingly short supply, and alone it may not be enough to protect farmers from the rapid onset of extreme weather caused by climate change. The past two years have battered farmers around the world with successive calamities that would have once been decades apart. The summer heatwave in the UK and France forced small-batch cheese makers to suspend production because their cows’ milk supplies dried up with the grass. In Japan, typhoon Nanmadol flattened Kyushu’s rice fields just before harvest, according to Megumi Watanabe, the head of Slow Food Japan. Meanwhile, warming ocean temperatures are driving fish stocks away, and even the seaweed harvest was low this year.

“Sometimes it feels like a whack-a-mole situation in which each season of the year requires more investment in time, energy, and supplies to get through,” says Adrianna Moreno, a first generation farmer and co-founder of Empowered Flowers, a woman-owned organic farm in Oregon. In 2021, she had to invest in shade cloth to protect her plants from sunburn through the unusually hot summer; this year she had to install greenhouses to help keep young seedlings dry in excessively wet conditions. She and her co-founder have no plans to throw in the towel, she says on the sidelines of the Terra Madre event, at least not “before we absolutely have to.”

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Others had it even tougher. Italy’s Po River Valley, a lush, well-watered plain that birthed ancient empires, succumbed to an unprecedented drought this summer. Starved by a dry winter that saw very little snowpack in the Alps, the Po dried up, along with a canal system that had irrigated the region’s rice paddies for centuries. Spring rains never arrived, compounding the problem. This is only the beginning, says Christina Brizzolari, an Italian rice farmer who converted conventional fields into a zero-waste, regenerative farm ten years ago. “Everyone is now saying that this summer will turn out to have been the best of the next ten years when it comes to weather.” Brizzolari lost 20% of her crop, and most of her neighbors lost everything. “This is a region that has been growing rice for hundreds of years. But tradition is no match for climate change. Without water, you can’t grow rice. What will we do, switch to soy?”

Preparing for the Future

The Slow Food movement promotes traditional crops wherever possible, but that ethos may soon have to give way to a climate that is changing too fast for tradition to keep up. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 report on land use and food security warns that if current greenhouse gas emission trends continue, agriculture that has been practiced for generations may no longer be possible in many parts of the world by 2050, and in some areas, like northern Africa or Southeast Asia, even sooner.

Australians are starting to get a glimpse of what that might look like. Amorelle Dempster, a Slow Food advocate and farm-to-table restaurateur, has been converting conventional farmers in her corner of Australia’s Hunter Valley to biodiverse and regenerative systems for the past 20 years. But a series of biblical-level and climate-change connected plagues over the past three years, from drought to bushfires, mouse infestations, and now floods, have tested even the most committed of farmers.

It’s hard to see how diversifying crops and healthy doses of cow manure will make a difference in the face of such climate change driven extremes. The most important lesson of Slow Food, says Dempster, is not how to farm as much as how to be flexible in the way you think about farming. Sometimes that means going back to old traditions, like crop rotations. Other times that means moving beyond the farm gate entirely. In the next couple of decades, she says, the Hunter Valley’s rich floodplain will become increasingly saline as rising ocean levels inundate the river mouth. Farmers could think about planting salt-tolerant plants in those areas. They could also start considering taking their crops to higher ground. “We know how to farm in a way that is good for us and good for the soil. But that is not always enough. We also have to adapt,” says Dempster. “Now is the time to start talking about relocating farms and protecting fertile areas from development.” Climate change is a threat, she says, “but in a way it’s helping us to realign what we know about farming with how the food system will work in the future.”

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Although regenerative farming can reduce carbon emissions while improving carbon sequestration, it is hard to see how it can be implemented on a scale large enough to truly reverse the effects of climate change on agriculture, all while feeding a growing global population. Slow food proponents say part of the solution lies in reducing food waste—a third of the world’s food production is either plowed under or thrown out every year—but the ability to maintain local food sources and food security well into the future requires substantial reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions that go far beyond the food system.

Slow Food evangelists like to say that change starts with individual choices: buying local, going organic, reducing meat consumption and avoiding food waste. “We are all just drops of water,” went another popular powerpoint slogan at the conference roundtables, “But together we make the ocean.” Actually, 7.98 billion drops barely fill a swimming pool. Slow Food alone won’t stop climate change. Ultimately the solution starts with eliminating fossil fuels. But at least we will eat better on the way.

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